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One Woman in the War

Alaine Polcz

The Front

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1It was already winter, and the front came closer and closer to Csákvár. Time passed at a snail’s pace. Then the Germans arrived.

2One morning, they burst into the manor house. “Orders! You have to leave!” How? On what? I set out to negotiate with the Germans, taking into account that any of the others would get a bullet in the head. Not Mami. She knew German, but when she heard we had to leave the manor, she started to cry, her entire body shook; she cried and cried and then got diarrhea, as she always did when she was nervous.

3I asked them to provide cars for our little band of ten in exchange for a side of pork, so we could go to the forester’s lodge with our belongings.

4I could not speak German, just a few words, and only a smattering of French. Soldiers wearing top boots conducted me to the command post. To my surprise, they had set up quarters at the manor house. I was able to enter at once, and I somehow made myself understood. The Germans granted my request; they did not ask me who the ten persons were; maybe they knew and just let us take flight. The jeeps arrived quickly at the side entrance of the manor. We packed up our belongings. Belongings? This meant our personal things, warm clothing; then mattresses, rugs, pillows, bedspreads, furs, utensils, food; next the house altar, the ciborium, the host, wines, and so on. The jeeps made many trips to the lodge and back.

5The Esterházys rolled out huge barrels of wine and knocked out the bottoms with axes, and the wine ran into the creek. They knew the reason why. People raced to the spot with buckets. The Germans were furious, but they bit their tongues.

6We dumped everything onto the floor of the half-empty forester’s lodge, which was located at the base of the mountain, at Pusztakőhányás. The commotion was immense; it was raining and mud was everywhere. (It must have been one of the milder days of winter.) Then we hitched horses to the wagons and drove them up the mountain to the upper forester’s lodge. We didn’t tell the Germans where we were heading; it was better if they did not know, and they did not ask us.

7We transported the French prisoners of war and the Jews first because they were in immediate danger. German soldiers lent us a helping hand at the time we boarded the jeeps; I do not think we roused any suspicion. They saw what was going on (for example, the French could not speak Hungarian), but they gave no sign of noticing anything. Then we went on the wagons from Pusztakőhányás up to Mindszentpuszta, into the Vértes mountain range.

8Mindszentpuszta consisted of a forester’s lodge and some auxiliary buildings: a summer kitchen, a stable, a kennel, and some lumber rooms. The house itself was quite small; a couple of steps led to an open veranda (an outhouse at its end). The kitchen opened from a little vestibule with a room to the right, another to the left. At Countess Esterházy’s order, we had taken with us their most valuable hunting dogs, sixteen in number, their favorite saddle horses, many valuable hunting weapons, furs, lots of provisions, and sides of pork. Since—as I have related—the Esterházys quickly opened the wine cellars at the time the Germans arrived, pouring several thousand liters of wine into the courtyard, and people carried away the expensive bottled specialities, we naturally could help ourselves to whatever we wanted. We placed the wines and an assortment of hard liquors in sealed, waxed, moldy bottles into several straw-lined cases. (As a direct consequence, we were tipsy in the evenings at Mindszentpuszta. This made our moods more tolerable—or a while.) We took Nyunyuka with us, too, our Siamese cat. Hating dogs, she attacked a German officer’s dog to scratch out its eyes. A dog is completely defenseless at such a time. It tore around whining and howling. The German soldiers watched, dumbfounded; we finally captured the dog and scraped off its head the wildly snarling Nyunyuka, her eyes now a fiery red, then stuffed her into a covered basket with great difficulty.

9I don’t remember what else we took with us. Nothing of very special value. I did want to take away a codex that was lying on the floor, but I felt embarrassed, thinking I would be stealing it. I put it back on the shelf. I don’t know what became of the silver and gold objects and the precious stones. I did not ask Mami or the Esterházys about them during later meetings. Events rushed at us so fast, that these matters completely faded from our consciousness.

10I did hear later that on the night we left, the Germans got drunk and threw glasses of jam against the frescoes, shattered the Chinese porcelain dishes, and shot up the etched mirrors.

11Mami still had to assist with the liquidation of the estate, and stayed behind with the understanding that she would follow us after a few days.

12I myself didn’t want to go to the Vértes mountain range. I preferred to move into Mami’s little peasant house in the village, but they rejected this plan. In the forester’s lodge we shall, they said, get through it all without being detected.

13By the time we reached Pusztakőhányás, all of us looked like real refugees. Everyone was sitting on their own baggage; rain was falling in torrents outside. We released Nyunyuka from the basket: the dogs, locked in one of the rooms, barked and whimpered. We prayed that they would not run into the cat.

14I stumbled upon a cylindrical box out in the mud on the ground. I picked it up and opened it; it contained a beautiful piece of goldsmith’s work, a ciborium. The Yugoslav priest had lost it. He was happy I found it; we celebrated mass daily. We had with us a lovely Italian corpus made of ivory, in the lower part of a crucifix of Lebanese cedar, a small piece of bone from some saint in a little gold compartment. This comprised the sacrament; later it became the family altar. Some in the group turned very morose because I had touched the communion chalice of the Mass with my blasphemous Protestant hands. I was the only Protestant in the whole company. However surprising it may seem, we were at this time the “secretaries” of the Papal nunciature, since with us was Pál Förstner, the embassy secretary, whom we had to hide because of his Jewish lineage. We had in our possession the papal flag and an enameled plaque inscribed in three languages, “Papal Nunciature, Diplomatic Corps. Extra-territorial, Inviolable.” Later this took root in me very clearly, “Exterritorialis.” Also written in the Cyrillic alphabet was, “Diplomatiicheski corpus.” If the Germans only knew.... We were, the others believed, prepared for any and all eventualities. I believed no such thing. Somewhere inside me, I sensed, I knew that tragic events were approaching. We were not able to avoid anything. The absolutely indifferent and odd manner in which János was treating me and the loss of my family and Transylvania added to my anxiety. I couldn’t talk to a single member of the group; after all, I had hardly seen any of them, and certainly had not spoken to any of them. The manor house was like a city; you didn’t know those who lived in a distant wing. Transylvania—only later did I sense how much this meant—jealously guarded the old traditions of an ancient religious freedom and its own special brand of democracy. Until then, I hadn’t had any inkling of the type of religious tension that now encompassed me. (For example, when I found the chalice, one of the party stepped up to me and coldly took it out of my hand. “Why did you open it?” “I stepped on it in the mud, and I did not know what the oddly shaped box could possibly be,” I replied. “Even so, you should not have handled it; this is a sacrament.” “Then it shouldn’t have been lost,” I replied, still innocently and in a really friendly way, and with that, I moved on.)

15The others were huddled together; by now only János and I were doing any hauling. We made several round trips and fetched mattresses, bedding, cooking utensils, and who knows what else. Next came the wagons to which we hitched the coach horses. Not used to yokes, they did not want to pull. Cursed at, whipped on the narrow, precipitous road in torrential rain, the horses turned wild; they galloped, kicked with their hind legs, tugged at the wagon fiercely, so it got stuck, leaning to the side.

16János unexpectedly put the reins in my hands, jumped off and, yelling, whipped the horses with all his might. They neighed, reared, kicked their hind legs, but they refused to pull. It was hellish. I was so frightened I almost screamed, but I held on to the reins without a word. When the horses started out wildly with a jerk, I almost tumbled between them. Everything rattled and creaked. I did know something about driving horses; but there was absolutely no possibility I would be able to guide these wild monsters on the dark forest road in the torrential downpour. I didn’t pray any more; everything in my taut muscles and quivering brain became confused.

17When the pace became steadier, János, to rescue us, jumped up onto the driver’s seat beside me while we were still moving, and took over the reins. He was very brave and quick. I would have given up the battle long ago and just sat there in the rain, waiting for dawn and something to happen. We reached Mindszentpuszta toward midnight (and we still had several more round trips to make).

18Jenő Sneider, the forester, lived in one room with his wife, Katinka and Márton Kerecsendi Kiss and the nineteen-year-old wife of a soldier serving at the front, a forester, in the other. She was called Ilonka. They received us kindly and very affectionately. The others picked their way up to the place on shorter footpaths.

19I have one more special memory of this night. The coach horses had to be taken back to Csákvár. We were taking two horses into the stable on a ramp, and I was leading the way with a candle I protected against the wind with a paper funnel. I slipped, dropped the candle, and rolled under the horses’ legs in the pitch-dark. Without even slowing down, the two horses stepped over me without doing me the least harm, even though I was, meanwhile, rolling downwards under them. János, on the other hand, stepped on me with his booted foot. Swearing furiously, he picked me up from the ground. “Have you gone mad? How can anyone be so clumsy!” He didn’t even take the trouble to comfort me; he didn’t even bother to ask whether the horses had kicked me or not. I wonder whether he knew these animals were this sensitive and quick and was not worried for that reason. Or did he think I would have cried out if I had been injured? Apart from annoyance, he showed no sign of any emotion. Possibly I was clumsy, but what city-bred woman would have handled it any better? On the whole, I must confess, I look back today on these accomplishments of mine appreciatively. I have been chicken-hearted, indeed cowardly, longer than I care to remember. Back then I only put on a brave face because I was under too much stress to feel fear. At Mindszentpuszta, they made beds on the floor of the forester’s lodge toward dawn. János and I lay together, sharing a mattress. He didn’t speak to me. Everyone said good night, but he didn’t. He did not embrace me, did not even touch me. He pulled away and turned his back to me. I thought he must be angry about something. But what? Because I’d been so clumsy with the horses? Because of the “infection”? Did he hate me because I had venereal disease? I could think of no other reason. After all—though I will not dwell on it here—I surrounded him with love, attention, and tenderness. I also tried to figure out what he was thinking. He hadn’t talked with me for weeks by then.

  • 1 “I have just now read its recipe: ‘Beat the lightly salted eggs. Mixing it with cream, pour it on (...)

20We settled into the forester’s lodge. The French went off by themselves, to live in a little place next to the summer kitchen. They cooked for us all. One of them was a meat cook as a civilian; another was also a cook, but he understood pastries only. My task was to supervise the kitchen, manage the supplies, and discuss the menus and other matters with them, apparently because I could speak a little French, and could also do a bit of cooking. Needless to say, if I told them we should make bean soup, they’d prepare some kind of unspeakable dish. We called it “bauxite” soup. (When the dried beans became half soft, they ground them up and then ground some celeriac into it.) They poured scrambled eggs on layered potatoes1 and so on. Occasionally, they asked permission to fix a real “French” meal. I consented, of course. I remember one of those meals even now. They cooked carrots in salty water, and also some peeled raw potatoes, but first they trimmed them, so that they would have a pretty, uniform oval shape. They arranged them on large round platters, the way we cut cake into slices. A slice of carrot, a slice of white potato. A nicely fried egg on the carrot, a slice of quickly broiled deer liver on top of the potato, round and round the platters. It was beautiful and delicious—in 1944, in the last days of the war!

21The bread-baking episode was our record collective achievement. Evoking memories from my childhood, we prepared the leaven in the evening, and kneaded and raised the dough in the morning. When I went with them to put the bread in, the oven was ice cold. (I don’t know how they thought we were going to bake it.) The result: a series of little slabs about a meter in diameter.

22All this was interesting, and it would have been convenient as well, if they had not been so terribly wasteful. Poor Katinka, Jenő Sneider’s wife, felt disheartened. Uncle Jenő, the chief forester, comforted her with great gentleness and wisdom, saying that it is not possible to cook separately for so many people. Who would do the cooking? For whom, where, and on what basis would it be done?

23They were an interesting couple. Uncle Jenő was tall, thin, slow-speaking, slow-moving. He was wise, cheerful, serious-minded. Katinka was short, buxom, down to earth, all heart and action. The great love of his life had been Katinka’s sister, who played the violin beautifully. She died after a couple of weeks of wedded bliss. After a few years, he married Katinka, who was her exact opposite. After the war, I visited the Sneiders and noticed they had put in a bathtub as tiny as a child’s. Uncle Jenő told me that he had searched a long time for one like it, because he heard it was possible to drown in a bathtub, and Katinka always liked taking a bath “that way”. We lived through quite dangerous days together, and nothing happened to her. She died three years later while undergoing surgery for appendicitis.

24Uncle Jenő was—who knows why—a right-winger; the reason they came to the forester’s lodge was to increase their distance from the Russians.

25Márton Kerecsendi Kiss arrived with the Sneiders. He had just become a recognized author. He had been János’s schoolmate, and it was János who put them in touch with each other. The Sneiders grew very fond of Márton.

26When every girl in Transylvania was corresponding with a boy in the home country, I wrote to Marci. Exchanges of photos, and so on. He began to sound the notes of love, at which I quickly informed him I was secretly János’s fiancée, thus staving off complications. This past colored our relationship.

27Katinka and I immediately became friends as housewives. I have no idea of what they thought about the relationship between János and me, for I never gave the slightest hint to anyone about it. They were all every tactful and observant. They didn’t tease us about our being newlyweds, and they didn’t try to hush János’s cold, grudging voice. Afterwards, I was very grateful to them for this.

28What was odd about this friendly company was that a continual political tension existed between us. They believed in a German victory and waited every minute for the front to reverse. We waited every minute for it to come to an end; after all, our very lives depended on it. Only one solution presented itself: no one ever talked politics, we never argued about anything. We talked about literature, philosophy, people, the past. We told stories, we played games. The endless winter nights passed. We opened the expensive bottles one after the other. Some were so old, a fine sediment had settled on the bottom, like moldy tree leaves.

29Marci and his wife were anti-Semitic, I believe. They were not pleased in principle by our harboring Jews, but they accepted it in practice. Only one of their requests betrayed their views: they wanted to share a room with us, without any strangers, if possible. So, the others lived in the other room.

30Our Siamese cat also lived with us. The dogs? Well, they were the cause of great concern. Only someone who has worked and lived with them could possibly know what taking care of sixteen hunting dogs involved. Förstner, a functionary of the nunciature’s secretary, took care of them. We honored him with the title “Le chef de chien.” He spoke to them politely, informally, or he swore at them, also very politely. We almost died from laughing. He had never owned a dog in his life. (He was likable, and I was fond of him. He was a short, plump man, always smiling, and he had brown eyes—the exact opposite of his tall, skinny, stern mother. Mina was a short young girl about twenty; she was also short and stocky with heavy bronze-colored hair and with a short, freckled, hysterical mother, whom I didn’t like. Mina didn’t like the poor thing, either. How on earth could she be like that?)

31One time, Nyunyuka went into the Yugoslav priest’s Mass, which he celebrated every day. Not wanting to interrupt the liturgy, they did not chase her out, and she settled down at the base of the crucifix. This became her favorite spot. The old priest captured my heart by looking at her, smiling, and saying she could sleep there in peace, except during the Mass. (The crucifix was the monstrance—it was set on top of a writing table.)

32In the evenings, the men would go outdoors for a cigarette; Katinka and I would spread the mattresses on the floor and distribute the covers, undress and lie down. Then the men would come in, turn off the light, undress in the dark and lie down. Getting up in the morning followed a similar pattern. The Förstners did the same.

33In the middle of the night, a hand grenade exploded in the yard; a round of machine gun fire immediately followed. We jumped out of bed instantly. We ran back and forth. Uncle Jenő and János ordered us women into a corner. (As I found out in the morning, they did that because it was the place best protected from the bullets flying through the window.) They looked outside intently. They wanted to shoot back! They wanted to go out!

34Katinka and I implored them not to move and threatened to run after them immediately if they dared to go out. This infuriated them, but eventually they stayed inside.

35The men outside were Russian partisans. They had fired only to avoid close combat. They did not want anything of us—they carried away some provisions. A live calf, a side of pork, and the like. The Frenchmen were frightened out of their wits, but they kept quiet. Next to them was a very small room, designated as the supply depot; the partisans drove the calf from the stable. As a result, our stock of provisions decreased sharply.

36In the daytime, the men would go hunting. Sometimes I would go with them. It was then that I became acquainted with Filike, a sandy-colored miniature dachshund, one of the Esterházys’ most wonderful dogs. He was a descendent of the English royal family. I think this must be taken to mean the canine royal family; no one remains whom I could ask what the case really was. The excitement of the hunters did not affect me, but I was beside myself with pleasure when we walked in the woods, János in front, the dog behind him, I in back. Suddenly, János stopped to listen, and Filike froze with one leg poised in the air. The snow crackled under me. János turned around nervously. “Do pay attention to how a real hunting dog behaves!” I never could please him. I so loved the snowy woods and the dog that I was full of joy; it was for this reason I couldn’t always listen attentively and tread cautiously enough. You have to walk in a way that won’t scare the game away. You have to step noiselessly when the other person is also taking a step, then stop when the other person stops. It was a strange way to walk, I must say. It seemed to parody my entire marriage. Then, to the great consternation of the others, I began walking in the woods alone instead. What would happen to me if I encountered Russian partisans or straggling soldiers? Or ran into the Russians or the Germans? I tried losing my way many times. I walked in the woods aimlessly, but at sunset fear forced me return to the lodge, humiliated.

37(How strange and wonderful life is: a few decades later, I would be riding a “deux chevaux” with my husband, Miklós, beside me, through what to me had been such a painful and danger-fraught area, and sipping black coffee in a spuriously ultra-modern espresso in Csákvár.)

38János and some of the men once shot a stag. We were again assured of about two hundred pounds of meat. We were delighted. They skinned it and hoisted it high with a pulley, to the top of a post, so it would freeze and animals could not reach it. (This was the customary practice.) We threw a big supper. The next day, the meat, enough for several weeks, was nowhere to be seen. Partisans had taken it, without firing a shot. By then, we were living in close proximity to each other, in what you might call peaceful accord.

39One day toward noon, a light buggy stopped in front of the house; in it was a tired woman, Klári, who appeared to be about forty, and her daughter, Marianne, about fourteen—Förstner’s relatives. How had they found their way to us and where had they come from? They became our new housemates.

  • 2 The forestry lodges kept in touch; everyone came and went on the various footpaths” – author’s not (...)

40Ilonka, the forester’s young wife, was going down to her native village to her mother. I wanted to go with her, no matter what. They let me join her very reluctantly. In addition to a wagon, they provided us with an armed forester for protection.2 We tipped over within a half an hour; the forester, falling out of the wagon, leaned on the gun barrel. The barrel filled up with sand. Then it could not be fired, because it would explode in our hands. We had a good laugh about this. I had quite an unfortunate fall; half my leg wound up under the wagon, but happily, there was thick, soft snow beneath me; otherwise, my leg would have been broken. I limped slightly but was cheerful and relieved. At such a young age, you are like a little animal; if it is able, it moves and is happy. (All the same, I am like this now, I like being happy.)

41We went to a Swabian village. Ilonka’s mother told her happily that her husband would be home Saturday on a two-day leave. “He should not go back to the army,” I said. “Dress him in civilian clothes and have him wait, hidden somewhere, for the Russians.” They looked at me very strangely. They belonged to the Volksbund. A little, pale, whining girl was also in the house; she was about fifteen or sixteen years old, kind of city-like. As it turned out, this Hungarian girl had skipped away from home and was living with a German soldier, and went with him everywhere at the front. Now they were billeted here. She just looked at us; she never spoke a word. (They could easily have broken my neck.)

42We were given a substantial lunch, then we had to shoe our horse. Also, we had to get some kerosene and salt. We were barely able to light our lamps. We started out a bit late, and we had also had a little to drink. Night descended upon us quickly; we took another swig to keep from getting cold. We gave no thought either to partisans or to straying lines of soldiers, the front, or other matters; we sang as if we were going to raise the woods. (Of course, at the time I sang just as off-key as always.)

43Suddenly, our horse stopped and refused to go on. An exhausted, collapsed horse was lying crosswise at the bottom of the steep road. We could not get it to stand on its legs, and we did not have the strength to run our horse across it. No matter how hard it was beaten, it would not step over the horse, because it knew that then it would pull the wagon across it. We tugged and tugged, but we could not make it step around the spent horse on the narrow, precipitous road. The thought of the wagon going across the live horse was appalling. Ilonka and I covered our eyes; we stood at a distance, huddled together. We were glad the horse resisted. It did not kick or neigh when being beaten. When pulled by its halter, it reared up. Finally, we unharnessed it; then it quietly stepped over its mate lying on the ground; and we, with great pain and difficulty, half pulled, half lifted the wagon over the sick animal. This scene affected me deeply; later, I wanted to go back for a blanket and some feed, so it would not freeze to death, but I was, of course, not allowed to do so. (It was said that the following day someone picked it up and stood it on its legs; it had collapsed from fatigue. Then the Russians took it away; it could not take that, and died shortly afterwards.)

44Half an hour later, we were singing again. Much later, we met some men with lamps; we were immeasurably amazed, because those who frequented the woods lay low, hid behind trees, and crept along on their stomachs. János and the men had come to meet us. They gave way to despair at our having fallen into the hands of partisans. When they heard us droning away, they were driven out of their minds by worry as to who was doing the singing. I jumped out of the wagon and, limping slightly, ran toward them. János grabbed me by the arm and wanted to beat me up—according to Uncle Jenő, only from nervous tension because he was very worried about me. In a strange way, I took this lightly; indeed, it pleased me and I laughed at it. As for the notion that it was stupid and dangerous to be singing, I replied that the contrary was true. It was the rattling wagon that betrayed our passing through the woods, but it was possible to tell from the singing that two tipsy women were driving it, and so it was not worth shooting. Uncle Jenő said I was right, but they strongly curtailed my freedom. I no longer left the lodge alone.

45One day, gendarmes came into the forest. They warmed themselves at our place—there was not another lodge within miles. They were combing the woods, exterminating partisans. (I won’t record the horrible details.) We gave them a bunch of Russian hand grenades and two Russian machine guns, to enable them to defend themselves in case any new partisans showed up.

  • 3 See note 18.

46Marci called me aside to tell me that a serious problem had developed. Ilonka had let out that János was a deserter, and the gendarmes wanted to take him away. (By then the Szálasi type of massacre3 was in force.) Marci and Uncle Jenő had exemption documents. Incidentally, János had served three and a half years at the front, Marci not even a single day. The entire incident imparted the injustice of some wild and nonsensical crap game. The lieutenant of the gendarmes did not accept water and wine from me. The troops sat down with the Frenchmen. (What could they talk about and how?)

47I cannot describe the horrible fear and despair that overcame me. I thought for a little while, then decided to speak to the lieutenant, and whatever the price, to persuade him with entreaty and bribery not to take János away. He constantly avoided me, however. And I could not say anything in the presence of anyone else, because then it would be impossible ab ovo for him to keep the matter to himself.

48I was trembling inside, while displaying a strange, icy calm at the same time. János shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, dear God, if this is the way it has to be...” According to him, you could not negotiate with the army, you could not ask anything from it. I pretended I had changed my mind.

49The time for the troops’ departure approached. They were packing up and saddling their horses. Then the lieutenant unexpectedly entered the room on the left, where I was alone. Maybe I was even expecting him. He immediately wanted to retreat. “You did not want to meet with me,” I said, offering him a place to sit. “No,” he said, waving his hand. He sat down grudgingly.

50I did not say a single word about János. I did not request anything. I looked at him and asked if he had a wife. I asked about his mother and sisters. But he understood my unexpressed request perfectly. I also knew—without a word being exchanged about it—that they would not take János away. All this took but a few minutes.

51They were already departing. Everyone was terrified. Were they going to take him away or execute him on the spot? I made a sign to János that everything was all right.

52Afterwards everyone plied me with questions about what I had done to persuade the lieutenant; they did not quite believe that we hadn’t spoken about anything. I think my unspoken entreaty had an effect. By the way, if I had expressed it, he would have been playing with own his life. The Szálasi government was in power.

53Later on, I also sensed this, that pleading, weeping, making a scene never helped. There was already enough of this in the war for everyone. The unspoken entreaty was far more effective. But, of course, you do have to back it up with your courage and will power stretched to its limits. At the time, I did not think of such things, I was not aware of all this; I had really prepared myself for the opposite. During such intense moments, something I cannot describe guides me with absolute certainty, something that dwells both inside and outside me.

  • 4 Béla Kádár (1877–1956) and János Thorma (1870–1937) were two outstanding painters of the first par (...)
  • 5 “Kálmán Tompa bequeathed his beautiful collection to the museum of the city of Pécs. It can be vie (...)

54The Russians finally reached the foot of the mountain. The foresters brought us the news. We were just getting ready for Christmas. Marci, Uncle Jenő, and Katinka packed up and moved on. They urged us to go with them. You know how the reasoning goes. We entrusted our two beautiful Kádár paintings and our Thorma painting4 to their care (which Miklós and I then presented to Kálmán Tompa at a later date).5 To their credit, they returned them to us a year later. They were going to Vértesnána. János went to fetch Mami; she had to help the Esterházys wind up the manor’s affairs. All were beside themselves and tried to dissuade him, saying that he would run directly into the arms of the Russians. But he started off. “I promised her I would, so I am going for her.” He was extremely honorable and brave in such matters. I was in despair; I feared for him, but I couldn’t tell him not to go after his mother; and he wouldn’t let me go with him.

55He headed out in a light buggy. At the time, he had grown a full Jesus- Christ beard, and wore a mackinaw and boots. (I also had a pair of small, light boots made of Halina cloth. He had brought the material from Italy; it was not possible to navigate the mountains otherwise.) Outdoors was a winter morning, glittering snow and dazzling sun. The day wore to a close. Next, a day of anxious waiting. I looked outside, inside intently. They returned. At the foot of the mountain they had encountered only Hungarian and German bands that were escaping, retreating in disorder. The Russians had not yet reached Csákvár.

  • 6 “Naturally, linen was not available during the war, nor after. We pieced out, patched the bed shee (...)

56Mami was pleasant, calm, and hard of hearing when she arrived. She said little. She brought a sack with her. “This is a Christmas gift for you and János,” she said. It contained ten bolts of fine bed linen. I had never seen so many in my whole life.6 (I did not use ten centimeters of the material. The Russians cut it up for footcloths. With it, a whole outfit provided themselves with footcloths.)

57We prepared for Christmas. Now that Marci and Katinka had left, only Mami, János, and I occupied the room. I rearranged everything, scrubbed and cleaned up the place thoroughly, and put carpets on the floor. I also improvised a little writing table in front of a window sill for János, so he could work and write, if he so wished. (The Frenchmen helped me to scrub the floor, but it didn’t seem to work. Finally, it became clear that they did it more simply: they poured the hot water on the floor, then they wiped it up with a scrubbing cloth, and it was done. We, on the other hand, did the cleaning from a bucket; namely, after gathering up the hot water, we rinsed the floor with cold water. They had never heard of this before. We marveled at each other, mutually.)

58Besides the enamel plaque, we carried with us a papal yellow flag and also a red flag, which was hidden. János also received a certificate that designated him as a nunciature (papal legation) official. According to plans, Angelo Rotta, papal nuncio at the time, was preparing to escape to Csákvár if the Germans did not surrender Budapest. At Bicske, he supposedly crawled under his car when the road came under attack. Nothing more was known about him.

59We waited for the Russians or the English with growing impatience. We were defenseless; we could be wiped out at any moment by the partisans, the Germans, the gendarmes, or even the Hungarian soldiers. But no. Not the soldiers. Their officers, maybe—acting on command. No one on the German side still believed in victory. And yet, court martials were being held, and executions by firing squad were carried out. According to the massacre decree in force at the time, anyone could be stood against the wall. No one knew what and whom the person feared. Despite this, we somehow trusted each other; strangers did, too. Orders were greater in number than deeds.

60In this connection, the following joke comes to my mind. In Munich, a man asks another, “Tell me, do you think the Führer will be victorious?” The one asked looks around cautiously, pulls his friend under a gate; he looks around again, makes a sign, leads him to the end of the yard, sees a haystack; they crawl into it; there he leans toward his friend’s ear and whispers, “Yes, I do.” When I think back on it now, there was some talk about new secret weapons. What would have happened if the Germans had had the atomic bomb at their disposal? I know that Hungary was not on the list of Dienstvolk (a people of menials) but on the list of expendables. This was how Hitler classified peoples. How could the Jewish people have become victims to it? And the German people, how did they turn into murderers? And we still have not recovered from our surprise that Stalinism imitated fascism, exterminating millions in the name of class warfare. How could the Russian people and so many peoples of the world have become victims to this?

61In my view, there is no answer, save one, “Lord, have mercy on us!”

62Nyunyuka suddenly went berserk because Marci and his wife had left, and Mami had arrived. Maybe she was in such high spirits because only Mami and I were in the room (the men had gone hunting again). She began springing about, and practically danced. She jumped over the furniture with enormous leaps and kept throwing herself into the air. Mami and I watched her, laughing. I was just about to hand out various things for the holiday and to see how far along our “chefs” were, what they were doing, when we heard the sound of a car horn. We were very surprised, for, according to our understanding, no car had ever been able to make it up to the lodge. It was difficult enough with horses and a wagon. We ran outside. Two German military vehicles were standing in front of the lodge. One looked like a truck, but was something else. Three officers jumped out; I saw the heads of several more soldiers. Meanwhile, they did not shut off their motors. They walked quickly over to us and ordered us to get into the vehicle immediately because the Russians would be arriving within an hour or two. The gendarmes had left our lodge to hunt for partisans (actually they had only warmed themselves up at our place), and the Russians would shoot every one of us in reprisal and reduce the house to ashes.

63Mami turned so pale she could barely translate the German, and she broke into silent tears. “The men are not here,” I replied. “We cannot leave until they come back.” “They are not coming back,” they declared flatly. “I am not leaving,” I said. “Then I am not, either,” Mami added.

64I asked the others what they wanted to do. I ran toward the interior. Naturally, they did not want to leave. It would have been somewhat difficult for them, given the fact that they were Jewish, to accept this unusual German rescue.

  • 7 “I don’t speak German, and I’m not going.”

65Efforts at persuasion followed quickly, but I just shook my head. “Ich kann nicht deutsch sprechen und ich gehe nicht.”7

66Then they inquired about weapons. “Gladly,” I replied, and gave them every weapon in the house very willingly and happily, from the expensive Belgian sporting gun to the Russian machine gun, all the cartridges and cleaning rods and, of course, the hand grenades. I was quite shocked when two soldiers carried out the cartridges; I had thrown them into a wood basket, and it was half full.

67I especially hated the hand grenades, in part because of the accident that befell the three boys, in part because of an adventure that had a fortunate outcome. One day the gendarmes were present just as Marci ran into the room, whipped off his shirt, and said, “Don’t be angry. I have to take off my shirt; quickly take out the splinters from my back.” I removed twelve slivers. One of the gendarmes was wounded in the face; they bandaged that themselves. Someone else among us was also wounded in the head, but I do not remember who it was. My hands shook so badly as I performed my duty that Uncle Jenő had to help me. They reassured me that János was all right, but I did not believe them. If that was the case, then where was he?

68What had happened was that they were curious about how the Soviet hand grenade worked—they had just then obtained them from the partisans; they broke one open and the percussion cap ignited. It blew the top of the table apart. They quickly fell on their faces. That was how Marci’s back caught the splinters. Three still untouched hand grenades remained on the table; if those had also exploded, not one of those in the room would have remained among the living.

69In short, I handed the firearms over happily, and the Germans stowed them away quickly. One of the officers held out his hand. When I accepted it, he swiftly jerked my arm and pulled me up into the vehicle. I began scuffling savagely, broke loose, and leaped from the moving vehicle. I fell headlong, of course, but I jumped to my feet and threatened them.

  • 8 “Spin the silk, comrade” – from a rallying song from the fifties emphasizing the necessity of work (...)

70To this day, the scene makes me laugh. Really, who was I threatening on the car loaded with two soldiers and all those weapons? (I had a similar feeling on another occasion. After the revolution of ‘56, a military vehicle was coming toward me from the opposite direction, a light machine gun mounted in front and about twenty soldiers with machine guns thrust out on both sides. They were dashing along. They were carrying two flags, one with national colors, the other a red one, and they were singing, “Spin the silk, comrade.”8 I became so acutely infuriated that I thought I would stand in front of the vehicle, because then they would stop and I would slap their faces.)

71However, if the Germans had really wanted to, they could have taken me away. I wonder, though, why did they want us to go with them? Why did they pull me into the vehicle? I pondered this a lot. If they wanted to ransack the lodges, they could have done that. If we resisted, they could have shot us all with the Russian machine guns I gave them, and they could have put the blame on the partisans if anyone at all would have asked them. Possibly, they were truly sorry for me and wanted to save me.

72At last, our men returned. What great joy and happiness! “The dirty Germans,” and such. I gave them the weapons? They almost tore me to pieces, they became so infuriated. What will we do now without weapons? What will become of us now? (I was glad we were rid of the weapons, but I did not say anything.) By the way, a small pistol remained in the pocket of one of the Frenchmen. However, he kept quiet about it.

73I went about decorating the Christmas tree. We were just lighting the candles when fleeing Hungarian soldiers knocked on the door. We welcomed everyone. This was János’s maxim. (Mine, too.) How could we possibly send anyone back into the wintry cold empty-handed? We quickly dressed them in civilian clothing. We threw their uniforms under the manure pile one by one. I gave each of them a Christmas present, chocolates, cigarettes, a pencil, a holiday supper, wine. Those poor grateful, tearful men.

74This was the kind of Christmas Eve it was. Moved, we celebrated the birth of Jesus, and waited for the Redeemer, snowy woods and sixteen dogs around us. Each dog got a hunk of deer sausage. Naturally, we drank. Everyone embraced and kissed me; we went back to our room like that. Mami tucked me in and kissed me again. János didn’t say a single word. After the light was turned off, I waited and kept listening. In vain! He didn’t come or speak to me. I crawled in beside him. “Go back,” he said, “Mami will hear us.” Suddenly a violent trembling overcame me, like a fit of shivering. I slipped back to my mattress without saying a word.

75I had trouble sleeping. The next day, I awoke with a very heavy heart. The first day of Christmas! It was always my most joyful family holiday. Pure brilliance, splendor, mirth. (I had several brothers and sisters.) I found it very hard to restrain myself. We breakfasted. Not a single word broke the silence.

76That morning is sharply engraved in my mind. I was wearing a red, matelassé floor-length dressing gown with the holiday in mind. I was spreading honey on the bread and looking out at the falling snow. It was coming down heavily, in large flakes. I saw the figures of two snow-covered horsemen in the yard in camouflaged, hooded overcoats. Like an apparition!

77They looked completely different from Hungarian or German soldiers. Maybe it was because of their snow-covered round hoods and the red star on the front of their fur caps, but also because of their faces. “The Russians,” I shouted, jumping up and pointing outside. Förstner and two Frenchmen sprang in from the other room.

78The next minute, the Russians kicked the door in with their boots. A soldier, covered with snow, stopped in the doorway, his machine gun raised to fire. He pointed it at each of us, one after the other, without making a single sound. I never looked at the gun barrel, but always at the person he was aiming at. Everyone’s face changed, the eyes of one widening, the another’s narrowing. And I noticed other things as well. (I had many opportunities after this to observe the play of this fear on faces.)

79After the startled, mute silence, the soldier asked something in Russian. We did not understand him.

  • 9 “Russian soldier good, German soldier bad.”

80Förstner, frightened but in impeccable German, began to explain that we were members of a diplomatic corps and so on. He turned extremely pale. I became frightened. What is this blockhead explaining in German? I interrupted him. “Vengerski,” I said, pointing at ourselves. “Jevreji,” pointing at Förstner. “Ruski soldat dobre. Nyemecki ne dobre.”9 At this, they became friendlier. They put us into a corner. They asked if we had any weapons. “No.” More soldiers rushed in and started to search the place. They turned the lodge upside down in minutes; they pulled and scattered everything all over the place; they went through everything from one end to another. They found the gun in the Frenchman’s pocket. “What are you doing with that?” “You will die for this.” I now saw fear on the Frenchman’s face. That certain kind of fear. These troops had fought their way through Romania; they knew a little Romanian. We quickly discovered this, and I began to do the interpreting. (I also told them who we were; it was of no interest to them.)

81They had’nt even taken the Frenchman away, when they brought in one of the Hungarian soldiers we had welcomed the previous night. They had found something in his pocket that resembled a certificate. I do not know what it could have been, I wasn’t able to look it over. I didn’t have to translate it because the tall, fine figure of a man, with a good Hungarian face, suddenly began speaking Russian fluently. He was very tense, however. You could tell they were accusing him of something. He was struggling bitterly, but it seemed he was unable to set up a defense for himself. They led him away. There were three short, staccato racks from behind the lodge. When I looked questioningly at János, he signaled that they had just killed him. Then they took the Frenchman. (He turned up the next day, pale and broken.)

82All this transpired extremely fast. Afterwards, they simply did not bother with us any more. They looked upon us as neutral objects. We, however, tottered and stumbled around among them; after all, there were thirty to forty persons to a room. It was impossible to move about. Everyone wanted to get warm. The stable filled up in seconds, and the horses stood in a circle under the trees, covered with jackets, greatcoats, carpets, and of course, also with our quilted coverlets. They laid their hands on everything as if unaware that it did not belong to them. If we were standing or sitting somewhere, they let us alone, provided they did not exactly want that exact spot. Whenever they did, they simply pushed us aside with the utmost indifference. At night, we crouched in a corner and slept three to a mattress. In a curious way they had respect for this. If they did sometimes sit on the edge of a mattress, rarely did one of them lie down on it.

83One time, on one of the first nights, Mina came in and said, “Just imagine, they brought in a side of one of our stags, they cut the whole thing into pieces. Two soldiers ground up the meat. (We had two meat grinders). A third rubbed the floor with a little snow and began kneading the meat right then and there on the floor. He rolled up his shirt sleeves; his hands were black to his wrist, white above it.” (This reminds me that I saw them do many things, but I never saw any of them wash up, not a single Russian soldier. Except a woman. I shall write more about her later. Many washed their feet, though, before wrapping them in the new footcloths they had ripped from the bed linens.)

84They prepared the meat in the following way. They salted it, added garlic, and seasoned it with bay leaves. Then they fried the big dumplingshaped pieces of meat in lard. Naturally, our precious frozen meat was as nothing for so many men. Yes, they had to have something else to eat. Whatever they could find. I saw neither a camp kitchen nor a bag of food with them. In a curious way, unlike Hungarian and German soldiers, they never carried anything other than their weapons with them. (Except for their loot.) They carried a knife in the tops of their boots. They simply had no knapsack or kit bag. They didn’t need blankets, because they could lie down in the snow in their wadded, quilted clothing and fur-lined jackets.

  • 10 “I was surprised that Russian officers also sat separately from the rank and file” – author’s note

85The evening of that same day, the officers invited us to their table to eat with them.10 They put three ominous-sized meat dumplings on my plate. They also offered some to Mami, but she became ill and went outside to vomit. After a little hesitation, I ate half and offered the rest to János, but he didn’t want to take it. Frankly speaking, they didn’t taste bad. After supper, I hurriedly looked for Mina and told her I had eaten some of the minced meat. We laughed so hard that the soldiers eyed us suspiciously from head to foot, wondering what our problem was. János became angry with us. Actually, it never occurred to me for a moment that among so many men, one of them would look upon me as a woman; I moved among them completely without apprehension and, to the extent circumstances permitted, without prejudice. Mina, Marianne, and Klári did so, too.

86Mami and Nyunyuka retired into their shells; they became mentally ill. Nyunyuka lost interest in the dogs.

87Actually, it is very difficult for me to relate what the situation was like. There was never any tranquility and stillness. In the lodge we were like passengers on a packed streetcar. Some of us slept at night, some during the day sitting on the floor, leaning against one another. We never really slept.

88The soldiers came and went night and day. The units also replaced each other. The days blurred into a strange, fog-like, oppressive dream.

89The well ran dry. The Russians cooked with melted snow. First they watered the horses, rather than drink themselves. Of course, we also suffered everything with them. We hadn’t washed ourselves for a long time. There was no place, water, or opportunity to do so. We ate what they ate. We were always only dozing even when we slept. Quarrels broke out, sometimes there was shouting.

90More and more soldiers came. Some were rough. We waited every day for them to leave and we would be rid of them. One time, the lodge unexpectedly became empty again. I cleaned up the place and we settled back in Then the Romanian soldiers came. When I spoke to them in Romanian, weeping, they threw themselves upon me and kissed my hand. They had lost heart among so many savages, fighting the Hungarians and the Germans.

91They begged for a little food. The fact that I gave them only some crusts of bread still troubles my soul today. Weeping, they thanked me for that, too. We were running out of everything, and I did not dare take out what we had stowed away.

92At the beginning of our time there, we hid a can of lard in the ground in the woods near the cliffs. This was our final cache. Several times, I prepared to go back and find it during times of starvation late in the war, then in peacetime. (This experience later became the theme of Miklós’s drama entitled Bunker.)

93We yearned for peace more than I can say. (Not so the Russians; they wanted Berlin. They were the victors, they were enjoying the war.)

94The soldiers taught us Russian in an extremely simple way. One morning when I looked out the window, they said, “Zima.” I looked at them uncomprehendingly. At this, one of the soldiers grabbed me, took me out, pressed a big bunch of snow against my neck, and said, “Zima! Rozhume?” I understood, and since then, I know it means cold. Or snow? No matter, to me “zima” means snow pressed against my neck, and it is cold.

95One time they brought out some kind of liquor, poured it into a tumbler, and said we were drinking to Stalin’s health, and the one who did not toss it down was a traitor. I don’t know how I understood what they said I think I learned Russian very quickly. Besides, they knew a few words of Romanian as well.

96We stood in a circle, I remember. I raised the tumbler to my lips and sensed it contained brandy. I wanted to stop, but they yelled at me, and I had to drain it. To me a water glass of brandy meant intoxication. János took hold of me, led me to a corner, sat me down, and squatting, crouching, I quickly fell asleep. By the time I awoke I had sobered up, after a fashion. They had not harmed me. It never entered my mind that they would.

97I had seen those posters in Budapest showing a Soviet soldier ripping a crucifix from a woman’s neck. I heard they ravished women. I also read leaflets reporting the Russians did this and that. I didn’t believe any of it; it was all German propaganda, I thought. I found it unimaginable that they would knock women down, that they would break their backs, and commit other horrors. Then I learned how their backs were broken. Very simply, unintentionally.

98One day one of the soldiers took the Yugoslav priest’s watch It was an old, large-shaped pocket watch with Roman numerals that the priest greatly treasured. He complained to me about it. I think he spoke in German; I understood him.

99I became horribly infuriated. I went in and asked him to point out the soldier who had taken it; I stood in front of the soldier, and scolding him loudly, I demanded he return the watch. The others stood there, the soldiers; they watched and listened to the scene; they did not say a word.

100Actually, it was quite easy to communicate with the Russians. It was also possible to shout at them in Hungarian. I had known for a long time that the more primeval and primitive, the nearer to nature a people are, the more they understand what someone is saying if his gestures are appropriate. They comprehend correctly what we also call metacommunication from the tone, the mimicking, the emphasis. They returned the watch to the priest. Dear God, how naive I was then. I did not know there was reason to be afraid.

101I also explained to them that we were members of the diplomatic corps, extra-territorial and immune. They took these words literally; they surrounded me, laughed, repeatedly slapped me in the face, hit me (not very hard). “There, you see, you are not immune.” Another time, they demanded I step “outside the territory”. They watched curiously, to see how I would do it.

102This was not a joke. They thought that immunity was some type of merciful force; it would, for example, stop dead in mid-air the hand of anyone trying to hit you. Or they did not believe it at all. They were atheists, with a few exceptions, and, to my consternation, anti-Semites. When they derided Förstner for being a Jew, I upbraided them indignantly, and they stopped immediately.

103Of course, the horses stayed outdoors during the nights, because there was not enough room in the stable; I don’t know why they didn’t freeze to death. Nor do I exactly know what happened to the sixteen dogs. In any case, many of them died, but three of them were always around me, Filike, Milkó—the name of the third one is always on the tip of my tongue, but I don’t, can’t come up with it.

104I often thought I should just keep on trying various names. The moment comes to my mind when some weeks later, this dog saw me on a street in Csákvár, dashed toward me, and was run over by a car. It darted along joyfully, and I cried out its name. I should shout that name now, too, but I simply can’t get it out.

105It was intrinsically strange that the Russians did not kick the three dogs out of the house; instead, they let them stay and huddle there, to lie beside me, on my legs, arms, and shoulders; there was really no room for them. I do not remember what Nyunyuka did in those days.

106There was also a woman in the detachment. Nadya was her name. One night she grabbed me by the wrist and led me into the kitchen; we locked the door somehow—I believe we tied it with a piece of twine. She shouted something in Russian; I think it was “leave us alone”. She heated some water, washed her hair, and bathed; she washed out her brassiere and panties and immediately put them back on, wet. First, she asked me, when she was undressing, to cut through the twine that tied her brassiere together in back, the only way she could slip out of it. Next she asked me to wash her back, and then, when she put on her still wet brassiere again, to tie it together with twine. “Good and tight!” she urged me, to keep pulling. I was flabbergasted. Then I understood that she would be engaged in battle for weeks like this; only by being bound up so rigidly, so tightly, could she move about and ride a horse among so many men— she was a cavalryman, in male clothing.

107But I did not understand why one woman would be assigned to be with men. I never saw them teasing or hugging her. There was also a child with them, or a young boy who could still be called a child; he was also a soldier and engaged in battle with them. The soldiers romped and played pranks on him a lot. He was a very sweet boy; occasionally he played with me, just like a boy-child.

108Then another detachment of soldiers arrived that ate raw meat. It was icy meat, freshly cut pork, plainly frozen raw, because it had frozen in a sack thrown on a horse in the cold. I don’t know who they were; they didn’t speak Russian. They offered me some; we ate it salted; it wasn’t bad.

  • 11 “It’s not working.”

109In our room hung an old-style wooden telephone apparatus, installed on the wall; it linked the residents of the forest lodges with one another and the central office of the forestry—it had stopped functioning a long time ago. I heard them as one said to another, “Nye robota.”11 One time, when a new unit arrived and they lifted the receiver, I said, “Nye robota.” At this, they dashed up to me, they wanted to slap me in the face, they tugged away at me. They took me for a spy. If I knew Russian, then how come I did not know it, and if I did not know it, then how come I did know it. This was how we lived.

110One lovely morning, they suddenly packed up all of us, provided us with a wagon on which we could load some of our belongings. Mami could have got into it, but she did not want to; she preferred to come with us. The rest (us) they herded down the hill on foot with a little slip of paper in our hands. Something was written in Cyrillic letters on a slip of paper the size of a palm torn from a square notebook; we were unable to read it. A Russian soldier escorted us, on horseback naturally; we went on foot. When we arrived in Pusztakőhányás, they turned us over to a larger unit. A pair of mounted soldiers rode in front, after them a good many men and women on foot, and in the rear, more mounted soldiers. We continued on this way, I do not know to where. There, another detachment joined us. They then separated the women and the men. János and I looked at each other: they must be pushing us on into a prisoner-of-war camp. We thought of Siberia, all the more because it was midwinter, the snow was hard, the sun glittered, there was a heavy frost. We went on, dragging ourselves along in the band, on an unknown road.

111I was cut off from János. No one did much talking. We were a fairly large group. Those who could not bear it dropped in their tracks; the soldiers kicked or shot them. It was mostly the elderly, women, and children who collapsed from fatigue; they would not have been able to go any farther anyway; they would have frozen to death quickly if a bullet had not finished them off. One thing is certain. I did not know we were crossing the firing line.

112We moved along like this until nightfall. Mami was already having trouble walking. We held her on each side and trudged along. The poor dear dragged her legs, her tears flowed.

113My heart began to ache badly—it is a poor way to express it, but I have no other way of putting it. Then I was seized by a savage rage and fury against the Russians, the kind of rage and fury I rarely ever feel in my life. At times like this, I am overcome by such audacity that I am not afraid of anything in the world.

114I jumped out of the line; I don’t know why they didn’t shoot me. I ran forward and grabbed the bridle of the horse of the soldier leading the group. By then I had long stopped fearing horses; they are better than human beings. The horse stopped dead and reared as I dug in my heels. The horseman raised his whip and dealt me a blow, or wanted to; I no longer remember, it is not very important.

115The fact is, I shouted a word or two in Russian and in Hungarian, “Beasts! Don’t you see the women and children can’t take it?” I yelled, “Stoj! Stop!” And we stopped! The soldiers and the entire band, everyone sank down where they were standing and tried to rest a little and pee. I don’t know how long we paused there; then we dragged ourselves to our feet and plodded on. After that, my memory disintegrated from fatigue and cold; I do not know what happened.

116Suddenly, I was standing all alone in a small, clean, friendly cottage. It consisted of a single room; a fire was burning in the stove, it gave off light. It may have been a hunting lodge or a guardroom.

117To my great surprise, a man in a German officer’s uniform was sitting there, his legs bandaged or covered with a cast; he was speaking to a Russian officer of higher rank standing beside him. I showed him the slip of paper and tried to explain it was a “diplomathiicheski corpus,” and I tried to explain in Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, and German that they should let us go, that what they were doing was illegal, inhuman.

118The officer looked at me attentively, summoned a soldier—I no longer know from where—and ordered him to single us out and let us go free. They released the French prisoners of war, the Yugoslav priest, the delegate of the nunciature, his mother, Klári, the little girl, Mina, her mother, János, Mami, and me to go wherever we wanted.

119Before they released us, they returned the slip of paper and gave each of us a slice of bread, altogether a half loaf of bread. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast; though I don’t remember whether we had eaten at all in the morning. I put my slice of bread into my coat pocket, so that later, when I would be very hungry, I would eat it, or if anyone could no longer bear it, I would give it to him. With that, we set out, knowing—because they had informed us—that we were the front line of the battle.

120We headed out blindly. According to János, we were not far from Csákvár; he was familiar with the road leading there. First, we had to take a shortcut through some woods. What was strange here—it was already growing dark—was that I continually saw projectiles flying. I literally saw them; they were colorful, they gave off a green light. “Tracer projectiles,” said János. Years later, on the dawn of November 4, 1956, when Miklós observed colorful projectiles from the window, he said that the Russian attack was about to begin, they were “tracer projectiles”. And the assault did commence.

121We reached the outskirts of Csákvár at night. A patrol had already been posted: a Russian soldier was walking back and forth on a straight line.

122The dogs, too, had rejoined us. The three dogs still alive followed us faithfully. While we were with the band, they followed us from afar, at a distance, so the soldiers would not notice them—they would have shot them. They knew many things, they were hunting dogs. This was their good fortune, and also ours, because we might have had to pay for them with our lives.

123We trudged with great difficulty through the woods in the deep snow between thickets, and reached the trail leading to the village. We were dead tired. János did not allow us to rest; he believed we would not be able to get up, having dragged ourselves along since morning.

124Night falls early in winter, but to us it seemed as if that night would never end. In fact, it was moonlit, and the snow added light to the scene. We remained quiet at the edge of the woods; then we lay down on our stomachs. We were able to calculate exactly that, as the guard walked forward, he would reach the point where we were located and then turn around and head in the opposite direction—his back was now turned to us! While his back was to us, we could creep ahead across the road. On the other side was a ditch—like depression, and we could press on in this depression. When the guard turned around—we had to figure this out— we would have to wait in the depression, mute, lying on our stomachs. When he walked past, and his back was to us again, we could creep on, then lie silently again. It was a nerve-racking game. János knew how to play it; he had covered this road five times before. He always gave the signal for us to drop to our stomachs and not to move on—then to move on. If someone missed a movement, it would be over for all of us. He knew for certain that on the firing line they would shoot without asking a question. And if they did ask, what could we have said?

  • 12 “The practice was to remove civilians from the firing line” – author’s note.

125Was it for this that the Russians had evacuated us?12 Was it for this that those who fell out of the line had to die? And as for why they released us, I have no idea whatsoever. Though we were carrying the document identifying us as members of a diplomatic corps and so on, in the end they had let us go into the firing line: on that night no identity check would have been conducted there. We were left for the last, János, Mami, I, and the dogs. János took Mami across. Then I followed with the dogs. He was very angry about the dogs. He swore at me very softly, firmly, whispering: It was my lunacy, the dogs should have been shot, they should have been tied to a tree. They have to be killed!

126I did not want to kill them. I myself did not want to live very much. However, I wanted the others to live, particularly János and Mami. I heard him out, and then we started off again, crawling, he in front, I after him, with Filike right beside me. The other two dogs were in the rear. They knew how to comply with János’s commands more promptly than I or anyone else did. When the signal came to lie on our stomachs in silence, they did not budge. When we crawled on our stomachs, they did, too. When we remained motionless, they did, too. They did not make a single sound. They remained perfectly mute.

127Good Lord! the intelligence, obedience, faithfulness of these dogs! It was easier to crawl with them and me than with the others, János told me subsequently.

128At the end of the ditch stood a hut resembling a press-house without a cellar. Its door was broken in. We crawled in silently one by one on our stomachs, mutely, as before; then János restored the door, putting something in front of it. Inside were two bunks, just bare boards. We lay prostrate on the ground and the bunks. Exhausted, we fell asleep. We did not feel cold, because there were so many of us in the little place.

129Hammering on the door about dawn. Now we were done for! The dogs began barking. János jumped to the door. They were Russian soldiers with a Hungarian man in tow. The Hungarian recognized János; he said something to the soldiers. Probably he said he “belongs here,” he “lives here,” he is “innocent,” or God knows what. They did not rough him up.

130I wanted to take out my slice of bread in the morning but found only crumbs in my pocket. It had crumbled.

131Then we headed away from the house-like structure amid horrible anxieties; we were nearing Csákvár. We reached it by noon. Now, too, brilliant sunshine, a hard, cold winter, and glittering snow surrounded us.

132I remember, the old lady, Förstner’s mother—I have forgotten her name—became very optimistic: she wanted to go to the hairdresser. We would have our hair done and then have lunch prepared for us, she said. I called her attention, somewhat exasperatedly, to the fact that we were in a battle area, at the front. She looked at me, astonished, “The hairdresser can still work.” “But there isn’t one in Csákvár, anyway,” I said.

  • 13 “Maybe this is what was written on the piece of paper” – author’s note.

133I do not know how we wound up at the parsonage; this has already become muddled in my mind. The fact is that we were there and had been directed there,13 and, wonder of wonders, the wagon arrived from the forester’s lodge with all of our belongings. So, as I put it, nothing in the whole world had disappeared. The Russians unorganized organization remains an eternal mystery to me. The same is true of their behavior; you could never figure out anything they did. Anything and the opposite of anything could happen. There was Nyunyuka in the traveling basket. A very long time had passed, almost two days. We took her out. She squatted and began to pee; she peed and peed interminably. Cats are so clean, she could bear the day and a half in the basket without messing it. (One of the basic problems of the war was that you had to void—yes, but when and where; oddly, even when you have not eaten for days. Later, I experienced this also with the comatose who were dying.)

134We settled into the parsonage. Living there were the minister, who was an archdeacon at the same time, his chaplain, and the rest of us. It was quite a large residence, an L-shaped building, the kitchen in the back. The French prisoners of war again lived in the kitchen and did the cooking. A glassed-in veranda stretched all the way to the large yard. Windows overlooked the front garden toward the square.

135A guard, a Soviet soldier, stood in front of the entrance; he did not let anyone enter. The village was bombed occasionally, but we supposedly led a peaceful existence. Except the clergymen. They behaved abominably. I remember, the Yugoslav priest was lying on a bed in the chaplain’s room. He was ill, old, and deaf. One time, I took something out of the chaplain’s cabinet, a glass or something, to give the priest a drink and forgot to put it back. For this, the chaplain rebuked me severely, sharply, as if I wanted to steal the glass. I don’t know what else occurred, but this I do, that I would have liked to slap his face. Up to that point in my life I would never have struck a human being or an animal. I said to him, “Sir, listen to me. I have never slapped anyone in the face in my whole life, but now, if I did not take into consideration that you are a minister, I would definitely slap your face.”

136The archdeacon had us beat the dust out of his Persian carpet; he tried to hide his possessions and made excuses for them, but he did not so much as give us a piece of potato, though his potato supply stood three to four meters deep in one half of his cellar, a large, four-cornered area. Then, during the course of battles, it was spread about and covered the entire area one meter deep. Meanwhile, Csákvár was being shelled. “Tell me, archdeacon, do you fear God?” I asked him. He looked at me and said, “It is quite clear you are a Protestant. You speak impudently with priests.” (He was tall, with a small, bulging paunch, always dressed in a black frock, and wore a gray hat on his head. His chaplain was gaunt, like someone who ate sparingly.)

  • 14 “Thank God it’s quiet today.”

137One evening the men were playing cards in the cellar, and the women had taken shelter there. János and I stayed upstairs. He was going to take his shoes for repairs in his slippers and lounging jacket. We were sitting on the floor, on the mattress at the foot of the Yugoslav priest’s bed, the three dogs beside me. János got up and walked around the narrow room. We listened to the powerful detonations. “Gott sei dank, heute ist ganz Ruhe,”14 the Yugoslav spoke up. He was that deaf. János and I were being amused by this and continuing to crouch at the foot of the bed, so that we would be protected from fragments in case of a hit. The door burst open. Russian soldiers poured in. One grabbed my wrist and jerked me up, the other János. The dogs barked madly, the soldiers shouted.

138They laid hold of János and took him outside in his slippers, bareheaded, in his lounging jacket. I ran after him. At the corner I encountered the men coming up from the cellar. The Russians hauled all of them away.

139I understood “in the morning” among the words they threw at me. It was horrible. I cannot express what I felt, I simply cannot.

140I told Mami and the other women in the cellar that all was quiet upstairs, but that the shelling might begin any minute and so they should stay put and sleep there. The men would defend the house.

141Upstairs, I put a pillow across my head to lessen the sound of the explosions; I pressed it against my ears, leaned my forehead against the window, and looked out into the moonlit night. I waited like this for morning to arrive.

142I felt with every nerve that now they had really torn János from me, really taken him away, and only God knew what would happen to him. Perhaps I also sensed what lay ahead of us. I believed this was my most abysmal night.

143The women came up from the cellar in the morning. There was a stream of complaints and accusations about why I didn’t tell them right away what had happened. What could they have done? I replied, curfew was in effect until morning, who would have dared to go outside into the night, and go where and why?

144I then set out alone. I tied up my hair with a kerchief and went to the kommandatura. Many others were already sitting there, waiting for their turn. Among them was a young girl whose head was bleeding, a lock of her hair having been ripped out. She was miserable and despondent. “The Russians ran over her,” said her mother. I did not understand her. “With a bicycle?” I asked. The woman became furious. “Are you crazy? Don’t you know what they do to women?”

145I listened to what the people around me were saying: which woman’s back broke, which one lost consciousness, which one was bleeding and they could not stop it, a man shot to death for trying to protect his wife.

146Suddenly the horror that surrounded us was unfolding. Suddenly it became clear to me that, in the parsonage, next to the Soviet military patrol, acquainted with a few soldiers who were occasionally jovial intruders, looters, and devourers of our food but held in check, we knew next to nothing about what was going on in the outside world. Maybe János did, only he did not tell me about it.

147He might have sensed something. Hungarian soldiers could not have behaved any more honorably in the Russian villages. Only, they were not this barbaric. Here the East had invaded the West.

148I no longer remember what the commanding officer said to me.

149Later, after they released the archdeacon, I learned that the Russians were accusing us of being spies because exactly after the tower clock struck, their headquarters was hit, and many were killed. They thought we had given the signal from the parsonage.

150It wasn’t possible to explain to them that the tower clock was wound up, that it strikes systematically—that this was only sheer coincidence. It was impossible to make the Russians understand many things. They lived in another world, their experiences were different. Their logic was also different. They were not acquainted with tower clocks. Generally it was the watch—they called it “chasi”—that they always searched for. I thought that after the Soviet detachments withdrew, there would hardly be a watch left in the entire country.

151The minister was very indignant that the Russians had treated him so disrespectfully; they hit him on the head, took away his hat, yelled at him. He said the others had been hauled away and probably put to death.

152One day—the minister probably was not even at home at the time, these days are jumbled again—many soldiers came in and went through everything. One of them called me aside and showed me a picture; it was of János in his officer’s uniform. Actually, the soldier did not do this so straightforwardly. He showed my picture and pointed at me, indicating “this is you”. He asked me about the picture of János dressed as a civilian. “Your husband?” I said yes. Then he produced the one on which we appear together, he in his officer’s uniform, and with that, there was nothing more to be said. He shouted in Russian: spy, traitor, officer, German, soldier! How did I understand those words? They were the ones we learned most quickly. And from his countenance.

153I had a string bean in my mouth, one from a can, and I felt I could not swallow it, no matter how hard I tried. I moved on and spit it out. The young man shouted: they will shoot him in the head, “tvoy muzh” (your man). Then he smiled and called me into the room. I went in with him; I knew what he had in mind. He put the photograph on the nightstand and laid me down on the bed. I was afraid he would not give me the picture. When he was done, he took the picture into his hand and showed it to me again. (I just kept fearing he would not give it to me.) I was wearing a checkered blouse with buttons for closing up and a small pocket. He unbuttoned the blouse, put the photograph inside it, buttoned it up, caressed where the picture lay, then left.

154Somehow I put in an appearance. Mami looked at me. I think she knew exactly what had happened, but we did not talk about it.

155The following day—the third day—some men we didn’t know came from the neighboring village and reported that our men had been executed; they were forced to dig a long ditch and stand at its edge, and then they were shot in the back of the head. Three local inhabitants threw dirt on them. (This is the usual practice, the victims themselves had to dig their own graves—it’s the way in every war.)

156“It is not true,” I told Mami. “I know it is not true.” I was terribly frightened and trembling, and I felt inside me that it was not true, or I just wanted to believe it was not true. I did not know exactly how it was, just that it was not true; it was not true, it was not true, I said to myself.

157After our men were taken away, it became clear that serious problems existed in the village; the sentry disappeared from the front of the parsonage. (I asked all the women to withdraw into one room and spend the night together; it would be safer that way. But they did not want to because some wanted to bring everything of theirs up from the cellar and keep it next to them; this way, however, we would not have been able to fit into the room.)

158I had a small metal box; it was made of a light, fine metal, covered on the outside with colorful paper, like tea canisters today. It contained the gold jewelry I had received as wedding gifts from my great aunt and family; they were lovely Transylvanian goldsmith’s work, a hundred to a hundred fifty years old, heavy gold pieces, one or two precious stones, and such. Placed on top were three Chinese porcelain tea cups and saucers that János had given me; he had brought or sent them to me from the Russian front. The china was packed in a soft, straw-like material, and this sat right on top.

159A couple of days after our men had disappeared, everyone gathered their things together and began hiding them; they lowered the silver into the well and concealed the more valuable objects under the manure pile, and the jewels in their beds, and so on. I pushed this box under the Yugoslav priest’s bed; I visited him frequently to feed and attend to him.

160Since the women did not want to stay in one room, we dispersed. It was growing dark. I was sitting with Mami in our room, afraid. It was quiet, a fire was burning in the tile stove, there was no shelling going on at the time.

161Three Russians came in; they told me in Romanian to go with them. I knew exactly what they wanted; I don’t know how, but I knew.

162I told Mami they were taking me to the hospital to take care of the casualties. Mami looked at me and pleaded with me, saying, “Don’t go, dear girl, don’t go. Don’t go with them, they will do something bad with you.” I told them my mother would not let me (I did not want to say “mother-in-law). They pointed to the corner of the stove door, which was reinforced with iron, and said they would bash Mami’s head against it if I did not go with them. (When I close my eyes, I can still see that stove door.) They said this in Romanian. I said to Mami in Hungarian that casualties were heavy, I had to go.

163I put on my boots and tied my hair in a kerchief. Then I untied and tied it again, untied it and tied it again to gain time. As I was standing, I heard something thumping on the floor. It was the heels of my boots, I was trembling so hard.

164I hugged and kissed Mami. “I will stay only as long as I have to help,” I said to her. “Think of the wounded.” Mami looked at me and began crying.

165We went out to the L-shaped corridor. (It was there in the middle of the L-shape that the Russians had encountered our men when they took them away.) Arriving in the middle of the “L,” I attacked them wildly without saying a word. I kicked and hit them with all my strength, but in the next moment I was on the floor. No one emitted a sound, not they, nor I; we tussled mutely. They took me back to the kitchen and threw me to the ground—apparently I was trying to defend myself or attack them— and my head struck the corner of the trash can. It was made of hardwood, as befitted an archdeacon’s residence. I lost consciousness.

166I regained consciousness in the archdeacon’s large inner bedroom. The panes were broken, the windows boarded up; nothing was on the bed but bare boards; I was lying on it. One of the Russians was on top of me. I heard a woman’s voice ricocheting from the ceiling, “Mommy, Mommy!” it shouted. Then I realized it was my voice, that I was shouting.

167When I realized this, I stopped; I lay quiet, motionless. My physical feeling had not returned with my consciousness; it was as if I had become petrified with fear or grown cold. I had reason to feel cold in that windowless, unheated room with the lower part of my body naked. I do not know how many Russians worked me over or how many of them had before. When day began to dawn, they left me there. I got up, I could move only with great effort. My head, my entire body ached. I was bleeding profusely. Did not feel that they had raped me but that they had attacked me physically. This had nothing to do with embraces or sex. It had nothing to do with anything. It was simply—I just now realize, as I am writing, that the word is accurate: aggression. That is what it was.

168I do not know whether it was then or some other time, but the Russians took everyone away. Mami, too. It was bearable for me; after all, I was already a woman, but Mina was just a girl. I went through the house and tracked her down by following her weeping and whimpering; she was lying stretched out on the cement floor in a chamber-like room. I went to her. “Let’s not go out to the left,” she said. “There are still some Russians there and they will attack us again.”

169We wanted to crawl out into the L-shaped corridor through the window so that we could get back to Mami. I crawled out. Mina would have followed me, but she was chubbier than I and became stuck. I crawled back in through the other section of the narrow triple window and pushed her from behind. They had treated her so roughly that her thighs were covered with wounds. As I pushed her naked bottom—it was stuck in the window—we even laughed. I don’t know why we did, but we had to. Outdoors we pulled ourselves together somehow and stole in to Mami. Was it then they took Mami away or some other time? By now, everything is muddled in my head, the nights and days, what happened when? which detachment invaded our privacy when? when were they Russians and when were they Germans? when were we fired upon and when was it quiet? By now, it is not possible for me to know anything for certain. It was not possible then, either.

  • 15 “You don’t mind the work?”

170When they first took me away—I found out later—Mami, crying and shouting, renounced and cursed God. From that day on, she was no longer religious. I became aware much later that she wasn’t going to church. Whether she still prayed or not, I don’t know. (I now understand why I came across so many atheists in Israel last summer.) I was never able to take Mami to a gynecologist, either, even though they had infected her, they infected all of us. When and who among so many? On another night, an entire detachment caught us unaware; then they laid us on the ground. It was dark and cold, firing was going on. The following scene remains etched in my mind: Eight to ten Russians on their haunches surround me, first one lies on me, then another. They specified the time allotted to each of them. They looked at a wristwatch; they lit a match from time to time, and one of them had a cigarette lighter; they kept track of the time. They hurried each other. One asked, “Dobre robota?”15

171I didn’t move. I thought I would die from it. Of course, you don’t die from it. Unless they break your back, but even then, not immediately.

172As for how much time passed and how many of them there were, I do not know. Toward dawn I understood why the back broke. They did the following: they pushed the legs toward the shoulders and threw themselves between them on their knees. If one of them did this too hard, the woman’s spine would snap, not because they wanted it to, but because of the unrestrained force. They shoved the woman into a curl on a point on her spine backward and forward, and they didn’t even notice if it broke. I also believed they would kill me, that I would die in their arms. My back was injured, but it did not break. Because the woman moves on a point at a time like this, my back developed a sore, and my slip and clothing stuck to the wound because it bled, but I did not notice it until later. So many things hurt, I just did not notice it.

173(Mina and I often speculated about how many minutes and men there had been during a particular night. They did the very same thing to her in another room. But why always on the floor?)

174The village was under fire, there was a constant rattle and grumbling. Then one day, an officer came; he took pity on me, took me into his lap, caressed me, covered me with his coat, and hummed softly to himself. I waited for him to rape me, or possibly he had already done so and had then taken me into his arms, or had taken me from the arms of others. But I do remember clearly that he felt my fingers to see if I was wearing a ring or not. He lit a match and looked. At that moment I removed my ring and handed it to him. My father had worn it on his little finger; real pearls encircled a little green stone in the shape of a horseshoe. It was a woman’s ring; that was why he wore it on his little finger. Why did my father like to wear a woman’s ring on his little finger?

175I don’t like rings, so how could I possibly have been wearing one then? Laughing, the officer returned it, reached into his pocket, and pulled out some rings. He kept working them onto my finger, but I did not want one. I smiled and returned each one to him. Perhaps they weren’t good rings; by now I no longer know how it came about, just that I didn’t want to accept one. Then he released me from his arms and wanted to go out.

176Despairing, I ran after him; I held on to the tip of his overcoat and did not let him go. He explained something, I didn’t understand him. He went out; I was so afraid I scurried after him. He walked over to the manure pile, stopped, and began to urinate. He looked sideways, saw me, and began laughing.

177He came back to me and embraced me again; I made a sign for him to wait. I went to the toilet. I stood on its top, for by then we had not been able to sit down on it for a long time. Up above, in Mindszent, too, in the forester’s lodge, the Russians appeared on the scene and did number two not only in it but under, above, beside it, everywhere. It was awful. You had to find a place for your feet so you could stand up. In short, I stood, finished my number one, and then I realized that sometimes you forget to pee because you are afraid or you don’t have the time.

178I went toward him. He waited for me and took me back to the house; he related many things to me in Russian that I didn’t understand. He pulled his fur cap over my head so I wouldn’t get cold; when I shivered, he put his quilted jacket on me. We woke to the dawn this way. The night passed better than the others, though I was always afraid he would leave me, and then others would assault me.

179As for what happened to Mami and the other women during this time? This episode took place at the beginning. Mina had long hair; a soldier wound it around his hand and dragged her that way. Mina howled and shouted my name. I went to her. “Help me!” she begged. I said to her softly, “Just go.” She did; that is, they carried her away.

180Did this occur before they took me away, or on only one night or evening, or did it happen again or for the first time then?

181The young girl, Marianne, was spared when she began to foam at the mouth and her eyes turned inward. They left her there, but they carried her grandmother off. In the morning, the grandmother told us proudly, “I am disciplined.”

182We laughed at this.

183I went to the doctor I knew in Csákvár; he reassured me that if I bled, I would by no means get any kind of infection. Just the opposite is true, but what could he have done? Nothing.

184We were all bleeding and could not wash ourselves. We tried to clean ourselves secretly in the snow.

185As to what became of those of us in the parsonage, I don’t really remember. The archdeacon just vanished somewhere. I don’t think he could bear the fact that Russians carried off his Persian carpets and the silver tableware, and ruined everything. Then the chaplain also disappeared; only we women remained in the parsonage, and the old Yugoslav priest, plus the billeted Russian soldiers.

186Sometimes the Russians stole from us, sometimes we helped ourselves to this and that of theirs. Or the other way around: we stole from them and they took this and that from us. The little that remained of our belongings dwindled increasingly. Mamika said to me, “Look here, I rescued this pair of your laced boots. I shall put one of them under the potatoes in the cellar, the other I shall hide behind the mirror.” But Mami was mistaken. The one behind the mirror disappeared. We pulled the other boot from under the potatoes to no purpose—you can’t walk in one boot.

187One time, they wanted to shoot us in the cellar, where we were, by then, living on the top of the potatoes, which had diminished because the Russians were eating them and so were we. I don’t know why, but they stood the four of us against the wall, Mami, me, Mina (who was the fourth?) and said they were going to shoot us in the head. The first bullet struck the wall beside me. I turned around and laughed in their faces. When they had stood me against the wall, I felt it wasn’t for real; that certain voice inside me told me it was not for real. When the first bullet hit the wall, I knew for certain with my head, my mind that it wasn’t. It wasn’t possible for a Russian soldier three meters away from the wall to miss his target with a machine gun. They were so surprised when I turned around and laughed that they immediately lowered their weapons. They came over, pounded me on the back, and howled with laughter: bravo, bravo. They enjoyed it. What? Their joke, my courage, my intuition, their savagery, or the whole comedy?

188Of course, they found everything in the well, what we had hidden under the manure pile, what had been buried in the ground. They ferreted with sticks; they dug where the ground was soft and found everything we had stowed away. My box was lying low under the bed. I forgot all about it.

189One night I jumped out the window. I don’t know whether it was when the house caught fire or some other time, or even why I was fleeing from them: the fact is, I jumped out, barefooted, in just a stitch of clothing, out onto the snow, across the fence, and I was off and running. Filike followed me. The Russians shot at me. They shot neatly around me with their machine guns.

190It was a great stunt. That is, it is extraordinarily easy to hit someone with a machine gun; you don’t have to aim, just lay down a round in the direction of the target, and a bullet will hit its mark anyway. But to fire around it, that requires skill, to make sure a single bullet does not strike. Now, too, I turned around for an instant, laughing. Meanwhile, I was careful to keep running rhythmically, so they would not hit me accidentally. Filike also maintained the cadence behind me. She was smart, she was good. Filike, Filike! when I think back on this little sandy-colored dog, even now I turn sad and search for her look in every dachshund’s eyes. However, if it is better for her not to be living any more, perhaps it is better for everyone.

191In short, Filike was running directly behind me; I was careful to run evenly because of her, too, so she would not be shot down. Why was it that I did not want them to hit me? I did not want that mentally. At such a time, you don’t think, you just run instinctively; you don’t fear death, you feel the whiz of the bullets and would like to elude them.

192I was escaping. Nobody wanted to take me in. Everyone was afraid; I was a young, a nineteen-year-old woman, and they knew the Russians often took me away. They were afraid to give me shelter, afraid the Russians would come after me.

193Then I begged them to let me into their barn, to let me take shelter beside the cattle. No, no. Let me into the cellar. No. I promised, I vowed I would lie, say I just sneaked in when I saw no one around.

194No one wanted to let me through the gate, not even the doctor or any of János’s acquaintances that I knew.

195I was forced to return to the parsonage, nearly frozen stiff. Filike was beside me. I did not dare go inside, the street at night seemed safer. When I grew extremely cold, I sat down on the steps of the gate leading to the street; Filike lay down there, and I put my legs on her and warmed her up. When my shoulder was freezing, I put Filike on it; when my neck was freezing, I put her there. Filike often protected me from freezing. I wonder, did she know what she was doing or not?

196Then on one of those nights when I didn’t know who were doing the rampaging, or how, only that it was all unbearable, a section of the house went up in flames. A bomb had struck it. A Russian soldier felt sorry for me, took hold of me, and led me away from there. I called Mami, too; the soldier let me do so. In the winter night, under curfew, we went—the Russian soldier, Mamika, and I—across the square in front of the church.

197He ushered us into a cellar. (Two years ago, Miklós and I went there; a grocery store stands above it now.) A steep shaft with wooden steps leading down, with a vaulted, small landing, then a wine cellar the size of a hall. Yes, this was it! Sixty to seventy people lay huddled close together in a row on the ground, a narrow passageway in the middle and an even narrower path where they lay two deep on the right. It must have seemed strange to them—those who were awake—that a Russian soldier escorted us in. Only a night lamp was shedding light. They gave Mami a chair; she sat down and stayed there until morning. I could not stand from exhaustion and lay down next to the entrance under the only table in the cellar, the only place where there was a little room. The ground was soaking wet. I pulled my hooded winter coat over my head and fell asleep, rolled into a ball.

198Apparently, I had stretched out in my sleep, because when they were waking me up in the morning, someone stepped on my head. They lit some matches. Bending over me, a male voice shouted, “A woman! A young woman!” They asked, “Where did you come from? “ “Kolozsvár, “I replied. They started laughing, “Now, directly?” Then I crawled out from under the table, and I said, “No, from the parsonage. “ Dead silence enveloped me—apparently they knew what was going on there—but they did not turn me out.

199Crazy scenes took place. I remember, they told the town clerk of Gyuró to return to Gyuró, young women dressed in white will greet him there with wreaths and flowers, that’s what he deserved. And other things I did not understand. What did I understand? Hand-to-hand fighting for half a meter of space, for a glass of water.

200Then Mami and I were given a place in the row where there was room for the two of us beside each other. Someone was so considerate that he helped me remove the front door from a damaged house and haul it to the cellar. The trouble was, it had a protruding iron knob in the center. If we turned it over, there was an iron disk on the other side. Mami and I deliberated for a long time whether we should choose the knob or the disk—for a place to sleep, that is. On one edge of the door was a heavy hinge, on the other a lock, a four-cornered box, a considerably protruding, ancient, primitive door lock with a large latch. Why didn’t we try to remove it? All we had was a pocketknife. In any case, it was very complicated for the two of us to lie on the door, one of us between the knob and the lock, the other between the knob and the hinge. It wasn’t exactly soft, either, given that it was constructed of wood and had angular indentations with little frames. In times past, it must have been a beautiful door, but small unfortunately. Mami, on the other hand, was a bit plump and buxom. She struggled to work herself between the latch and knob.

201To prevent the Russians from recognizing me, I spread a large black shawl over my shoulders, dirtied my face, and drew wrinkles with coal, and we developed other ruses with the women. I kept Filike under my coat, on my chest; the shawl also covered her. Filike was quiet, she did not yap, she barely snuffled, and when our legs were too cold, then Mami and I looked at each other, and at night, in the dark, we put her on our legs, now warming me, now her. Of course, we were also keeping Filike warm.

202What was life like in the cellar? Shelling went on constantly, sometimes incoming, sometimes outgoing. But there was always a cease-fire from six to six-ten in the evening. To this day I don’t know why there was a cease-fire or how we knew there would be one. But at that time we would all dash up, women, children, and men; everyone would drop their pants and do their business.

203Scenes like these swirled around us, “You’re an idiot, can’t you see you are pissing on my foot?” A woman came down, weeping, her hightopped shoe was undone; that was why its shank stood out, and she said, “Just look, I shit in my shoe.”

204It was twice as hard for me because I had to hold Filike to make sure no one would see her, and she had to pee, too. For this reason I ran farther than the others and took cover behind the pig sty. We finished our business beside each other, together, quaking; we were not afraid of the shelling but of human beings. Sometimes I’d even go up into the firing line, so Filike could pee and I could also relieve myself.

205It wasn’t easy to do this, but at least I was not witness to degrading scenes. The many naked behinds, all the pissing, shitting, crowding, “Don’t bother me! Can’t you see?” It was better for Filike and me in the firing line, privately.

206I was afraid that people would notice that Filike was with me; it was not permitted to take dogs down into a shelter. Why? Because when the shelling was going on, they could turn savage, bite, or infect. How numerous were the infections we feared then!

207In the cellar were a pail of water and, right next to it, a mug with a handle; everyone dipped it into the water and drank from it. I thought the mug was dark-colored or dark gray. Then much later on, I once saw in daylight that it was originally white, the dirt on it gray.

208Certain persons had food; others went up, when there was no firing going on, and obtained food from somewhere. We had nothing. I remember, I found a tiny package beside my head every morning. It must have been put there by János’s aging, pudgy bachelor friend. A few cracklings; at another time one or two round cakes, sometimes a piece of bread or sausage, or a bit of bacon in it. In any case, it was enough for Mami and me to get by on. I mean, we were hungry, but did not die of hunger.

209Mami kept losing weight; she was no longer eating even what I found in the little package. I went to the doctor, János’s acquaintance, and asked him what I should do. He advised me to give her liquids because otherwise she would die in the cellar. Fluids, yes, but what? We were limited to just one mug of water a day.

210I went to the Russians and asked for a cup of milk. I knew what the price would be; I went to bed for a cup of milk.

211Then I went to the parsonage, where we last lived I wanted to fetch a mattress because the door was hard, and water had slowly soaked through it. The officer consented; if I would go to bed with him, I could take the mattress. (Which we had left there.) Filike was with me; it took place in the old potato cellar. There were still a few potatoes left; I lay on them, I did not move. Help yourself!

212Meanwhile, the officer lit a match; first, he touched my eyes to see if they were open or not. They were open, he poked them; they hurt a little. But since I didn’t move or flinch, he lit another match and looked to see if I was alive or dead. He shook his head.

213He could not have derived much pleasure from me. But when I prepared to pack and take the mattress, he sent his orderly down, and he mounted me, too. Filike kept running around me, whining, whimpering, and licking my hand; my hands and legs were cold, the whining Filike’s tongue was warm.

214I made nothing of the fact that the officer had sent his orderly down. Today I am inclined to think that he was more democratic than Hungarian officers were. Or would a Hungarian officer also have sent down his orderly after himself?

215This young soldier then helped me to hoist the mattress onto my back. We desperately needed the mattress because Mami was coughing and gurgling. I carried it happily. By now this no longer was a problem for me at all. We put the doubled-over mattress on my back and, bent in two, I moved on.

216An air attack struck us on the way; I sat down in a ditch beside the road, the mattress over my head and back; I felt safe. A convoy of Soviet soldiers was traveling on the road; airplanes attacked it, nose-diving. To my surprise, this military convoy behaved just as the German convoy had previously: it slowed down. It is terrifying when the procession slows down and crawls along under attack, and it is terrifying when the planes above lose altitude and dive down with a ground-shaking roar and drone; but these solders leaned out, raised their machine guns skyward, and tried to shoot them down. When they spotted me under the mattress, they broke into cheers, shouted, threw kisses, laughed, clapped their hands: Bravo, bravo! (They knew this word; they used it frequently.)

217I think what they enjoyed so immensely was something I didn’t know, that the mattress would not protect me from anything on earth. Either a bullet or shrapnel would go through it, not to mention a blast or a bomb.

218Much later, I was once again walking on the street with Filike. I wanted to die because I had reached the end of my tether, and the airplanes attacked again, the hurtling dive bombers. They swept along the road, the empty road; maybe they wanted to rip it up. I walked in the center of the road, I didn’t want to seek cover. Let them hit me. “Oh Lord, let them hit me, let them hit me now,” I begged. And still, when the plane was above me, roaring with its ear-splitting terror, the sound made me hunch my shoulders, and I crouched but moved ahead on my haunches. I didn’t fall on my stomach, I didn’t seek cover. I wanted to die, but I was unable to move standing upright. Filike, however, followed me without making a sound and faithfully. When I moved on my haunches, she gave me such a searching look and maintained the rhythm of my odd pace. (Filike, is there anyone on earth whose faithfulness is comparable to yours? And I abandoned you.)

219Where was I going? To Mami. The doctor said she had to be removed from the cellar. She had a house, a lovely little peasant cottage with dark beams. She had rented it to an elderly couple. They took her in at my pleading; they took her in and also another old woman. As I learned later, they figured that safety was greater where there were old women, because the Russians liked the “little dolls” and “little mamas” and they greatly respected them. If it sometimes happened that they now and then took one of them away with the young ones, oh well, dear Lord, in the dark every cow is black.

220One of the old women was wounded, and her wound became maggotty. She was very obese. “The old beast,” said the master of the household.

221I tried treating the wound, but I had nothing proper to use. I cleaned it with wine; I washed the bandage with snow, then left it out in the freezing cold to kill the bacteria. At the time, I did not know that maggots cleaned wounds. I fought them; meanwhile, I could not comprehend where the maggots could spring from into the body of a human being in winter.

222Maggotty wounds—these belonged to the war, too. This is again something for which I cannot find an expression. The wriggling grubs appear in the human body, in the living, raw flesh-there where the wound ulcerates, secretes, suppurates; sometimes they tumble about; sometimes they pause, feeding for certain at such times. They are white, and of varying size—they teem.

223In short, I placed Mami with the elderly couple for her safety. She lived well there, generally, and she was always urging, “Come, my child, come.” At other times she warned, “Don’t come, shooting is going on.” But I went to her whether there was any danger or not.

224While we were still living in the cellar, where people bickered and were impatient and edgy, we were often told how truly rare it was for a mother and daughter to love each other so much; we never raised our voices to each other. I corrected them. Mami was my mother-in-law, not my mother. They were amazed, they hardly wanted to believe me.

225Mami was good, neat, simple, and reserved. We saw eye to eye in everything, much more so than I did with my own mother, or anyone else. I could never get along better with any man or woman than I could with Mami, despite the fact that we lived together in midst of dangerous situations and great adversity all the time. Maybe she was an angel. She embodied peacefulness, gentleness, and temperance. These hackneyed words express what she was like.

226I loved her, and she loved me. Even when I began my search for János and begged that he not be put to death and not be taken away, she urged, “Don’t go, stay here, don’t go, you will run into trouble.” And when they brought the news that János had been executed and I retorted it was not true, she looked at me, smiling, “You say it isn’t? Are you sure it isn’t? Let’s not be afraid!”

227The following episode took place while we were still living in the cellar. I wasn’t present—I’d been taken away to dig trenches, I think (but more about what it meant to a woman to dig trenches in frozen ground later). On my return, I was greeted with the news that János had suddenly staggered into the cellar and shouted my name. It was then that the men were being herded out of the village, and he asked someone for a hat. He was still in his lounge jacket and slippers. In that terrible cold and snow. Hearing this, I thought my heart would break.

Her heart bursting, also the ground beneath,
And her little child falling into it.

228Since that moment, I know the language of balladry contains psychological realism. Because this is what humans feel: the heart breaks, the ground splits asunder, and one plummets into the depths of darkness.

229I was aware by then that János’s manuscripts had been carried off. I had a piece of paper in my possession. During the night, I put his verses together line by line. I racked my memory until I found and wrote down every word, every line. Then I wrote in tiny letters in the margins, then sideways, backwards, and on the back of the paper. I filled the piece of paper with fourteen or twenty of his poems that I knew and that, though I had not learned them by heart, I was able to quote at the time. Then the Russians took away this sheet, too.

230When we became infested by lice in the cellar, I undressed, so I could remove them from my undergarments. The woman behind me screamed. When I took off my slip, I had torn open the wound on my back. Horrified, she questioned me closely, “Didn’t you notice you had a sore on your back? Didn’t you realize you would tear it open?” Others ran over to look at the sore. (I got the sore because when the Russians raped me, they pushed my legs against my shoulders.) Later, the wound healed somehow; who could be concerned about it at that time?

231Later we became scabby. The town clerk of Gyuró offered his felicitations to someone with these words, “Madam, what you have between your fingers is not a rash, it is scabies; I have it, too.” I already knew so much about lice that I could tell which was female, which was male, which was pregnant, which was full, which was hungry. Sometime, I’ll describe what lice are like. For now, briefly, there are hair lice, clothing lice, crab lice. Crab lice live in the hair of the armpits and in pubic hair, hair lice, as their name states, in the hair on the head. If you have all three, then it is futile to pluck them out, they bite you constantly. We were advised to smear ourselves with kerosene. The lice did not recoil from it at all, and the kerosene stung even more fiercely, and we became smelly, besides. Of course, there was no possibility of washing up.

232At first we spoke about our mouths being smelly because we could not brush our teeth. Then, after a time, such a notion never occurred to us; we were not even aware of it, not even of the lack of washing up. With eighty of us in the cellar, there was not even enough water for us to drink, and, after a couple of days, our demand for water to wash up also ceased. On the other hand, it was horrible to bleed so profusely and not be able to put on clean panties. The blood froze in the trenches, it thawed at night; then it dried, and the panties pinched the thighs, and you always felt you smelled of blood. But then, everything around us smelled of blood.

233A bomb exploded near us, the entire cellar shook. Silence followed. In the dead silence of eighty humans, a small child cried out. Then a woman’s voice, pitched peculiarly high, began in a steady, monotonic rhythm, “Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Virgin Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” (Silence. Forty years later, that voice still rings in my ears. I must open a window.)

234I thought I would go mad; I wanted to shout for her to stop, it was unbearable. But, I wonder, would it have been easier to endure the silence? Why did this prayer strike me as being so terrible? At the time I did not know it. This prayer is also the prayer of the dying. Since that time, I have become fond of it.

235What is better in the face of a threat to life? For everyone to be silent, or for everyone to yell, for someone to pray, or for many to shout? I don’t know. But fear is terrible if many are afraid, and fear is terrible if you are alone. Fear is somewhat more bearable if a Filike is with you and even somewhat more bearable if someone you love is beside you. How strange that I loved Filike but felt no fear for her. (As if she were invulnerable. As if she were one with me. And as if she never experienced any fear, she never whimpered, never barked. Sometimes she shivered, but dachshunds do that frequently.)

236Once a Russian soldier came into the cellar. I was asleep. He woke me up; he bent over me and shook me. The same woman who had noticed the sore on my back told me that my face took on the terrorized look of a horse. My nostrils widened and quivered, the veins on my forehead swelled, and my pupils dilated queerly. This occurred at the first moment. Then followed my pleading, my begging in Romanian. I implored the others in Hungarian, the kommandatura is nearby, go and tell them! Ask for help! or send a child, you know the Russians will not hurt children. But no, not one of them moved. Eighty beings listened to my pleas and did nothing. I showed them I would cover the pistol’s barrel, I would put my hand over it, so the soldier would not be able to shoot. They were afraid, they kept silent and tolerated my being raped right in front of them and the children. I wonder how they will square this with their consciences. And how will I be able to if I do not help someone because I am afraid—and how many the times I will fail to help?

237When there are screams on the street outside, I wake up from the deepest sleep. I run out to the balcony to investigate what is happening; I think I will throw something down, a vase, a potted plant. I have to do something because someone has called out for help, and I know people will not leave their apartments. When I called for help, no one budged. When I shouted for help out on the street... Yet people were there, looking out their windows. (Fear, not love, conquers all?)

238No one took me in on the night I escaped from the parsonage. Much later, I needed help on a street in a small town in Hungary. I pleaded in vain for people just to let me into the cellar or to a chair in a vestibule or into the barn. No! No! During winter, it is not possible to spend the night without a roof over your head. In any case, by the time day breaks, you are exhausted, and if you sit down, you freeze to death. I am afraid when I am out on the street alone at night in a strange town. I might also fear I may be attacked; this does happen during a time of peace, in Budapest, too. But I am more afraid of being shut out.

239Miklós once said they attack me because I am like a closed box to them, and they are curious about what is inside. I simply do not know. Anyway, the Russians attacked me many times. I learned I cannot fight a man; I am weaker, I cannot defend myself. I cannot hit him because he hits harder. I cannot run away because he will run me down. There is nothing useful in the advice to kick the attacker’s sexual organs, to kick him between the legs—as they now say, kick him in the balls! You can kick the first one, but in the next instant you are on the ground, and then most likely, you will never get up again because they will finish you off.

240But as for why so many in the cellar were afraid, why they did not dare to help me? That they did not is understandable, but I still wonder about it on the rare occasions when it still comes to my mind.

241The Russians took us to dig trenches occasionally, and it was excruciating, hacking the frozen ground with a pickaxe between continual bomb hits. But they gave us something to eat. At other times, we helped in the kitchen, which was a large, half-shot-up room. A soldier stacked the fire under the wash boiler, the cauldron pipe led through an empty window frame into the yard. The door was open—or was the door gone? We still felt some warmth, though. The cook’s foot was missing; the stump was bandaged, he did the cooking like that. The Russians were incredibly brave; pain and fear had no meaning for them.

242They prepared soup frequently; they boiled the water in a huge cauldron, tossed chunks of beef into it, then large amounts of cabbage and bay leaves, then potatoes, and finally a handful of dumplings. I don’t know what this soup was called; it had a very good flavor. Of course, it was no fun cooking for several hundred men.

243We peeled potatoes in the cold, squatting on the ground until we thought our backs would break. We were given a dish of soup; I took mine to Mami. We were given the potato peels. We took some to those who were hungry, and we set some aside for spring planting. We stealthily peeled them rather thick, so that they would retain their buds. For by then, in February, it was obvious that the war would not be over by spring, that there would not be a potato crop.

244One morning, the Russians gathered the women together again, and a young boy took it upon himself to save me from the round-up. He lay down beside me and put his arms around me; I covered my face, and somehow remained there. But an hour later they mustered the men. I said to the boy, “Now I will help you to stay here.” I scattered straw, clothing, this and that over him; I rummaged about to hide him. There were not enough males around, so they took me away, too. I had two small roundcakes for that day. I gobbled them down and drank my ration of water on it, thinking that the Russians would give me something to eat. But the officer dressed the soldiers down for bringing women to perform such hard work, and I was chased back to the cellar. I had wolfed down the roundcakes! The others were amused by this, and so was I.

245We were all extremely hungry when someone brought fresh bread to the fourth resting place on my left, to the woman who had called out the “Hail, Mary” so loudly. They cut into the loaf and started eating it. I became so agitated, I wanted some so badly, I broke into a sweat, and I considered going over to them, or sending a child, to offer my only treasure, a small bottle of Vetol oil, in exchange for a small piece of bread.

246I was holding on to a small bottle of Vetol oil, a German oil for wounds, at that, in the buttoned-down pocket of the checkered blouse I have mentioned. I guarded it like a treasure, though I had noticed that when it was applied, the wound filled with puss, instead of healing. But I did not have anything else, just a safety pin and a small piece of driedup, moldy sausage, which I was saving until the very last, so that in case I or someone else should faint from hunger, something would be available. (I did save it from the war and reached liberated Budapest with it. And then... But what about until then?)

247I did not dare go over to the woman to propose the exchange. I don’t know how it happened, but to me it was like a miracle, like an embodiment of goodness, as if the firmament had opened up. She sent her child over to me with a small, fresh, real, soft, fragrant piece of her bread. I ate it very slowly, so that I could savor it at leisure. The pleasure of the bread, which we had been without for weeks by then, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of goodness—this is what that piece of bread meant to me.

248The Germans returned, then the Russians came again. I was always more afraid of the Germans. When they said there would be an execution, then you could be certain they would execute someone. The fear began with the Gestapo, and it was regressive. The persecution of the Jews intensified it.

249With the Russians, you could never know anything, never figure out anything. It is amazing that something actually developed from this lack of organization. When they left, they never said good-bye; they simply vanished. When they returned, they greeted us with tremendous joy, took us into their laps, tossed us into the air, as if they were meeting their dearest relatives. They were warmhearted but unusually impulsive.

  • 16 “Up yours.”

250First, we learned to swear from them. “Job tvoju”16, was the first real Russian phrase. Once a real misunderstanding arose. We wanted to say “muzh jesty,” that “I have a husband,” meaning “don’t harm me, it will bring me grief.” “Nuzhna” meant “you can”; they generally understood “muzh jesty” as “muzhna”. According to them, when they took a woman away, she was desperately shouting “you can, you can.” It could be translated approximately like that. It made no difference what they understood. It did not change anything.

  • 17 In Hungarian kapu means gate.

251A woman in the cellar is saying, “I went out and saw all was kaput.” Someone asked her, “What did they do with every gate?” Laughter: “kaput” in Russian means something is over, ruined, or something like that.17 In any case, we learned “kaput” and used it frequently. “Front jargon” developed quickly. The expression “zabrálni,” “to loot,” was the most natural, for it was close to zabálni, “to eat your fill like a pig.” I don’t know how we came to forget it today; after all, we continued to use the expression for twenty years.

252The cellar did not give us any bright moments, any jolly times. Hunger, destitution, filth, lice, and sickness weighed us down; also, the constant fear and, naturally before and above all else, the outgoing and incoming firing, sometimes Russian, sometimes German.

253We noticed, or thought we noticed, that three days of unbridled pillage followed every larger battle or reoccupation. Unbridled pillage and unbridled rape. After that, all this was forbidden, and generally, anyone who could be proved to have raped a woman would be shot.

254I do not know how it came about, but I once found myself in a situation in which soldiers were standing in a row and I had to point out the one who had raped me. I remember it only faintly. On a cold winter morning, I am walking in front of the row; the soldiers are standing stiffly, straight, at attention. Two officers escort me on my left. I saw fear in the eyes of one of the soldiers. He had blue eyes and was quite a young boy. From this fear I knew he was the one. But what flashed in his eyes was so keen, so dreadful that I immediately felt: it is out of the question! There was no sense in having them kill this boy. Why, when the others would go free? And why only this one?

255On another winter morning, however, they flogged me. I no longer know exactly why they did it. I don’t even want to untangle it; somehow it has all become snarled (like so many other things). They stripped me to the waist, some soldiers stood around me, and one of them struck me in a regular rhythm. The lash was not a whip, but a pliable braided strap shaped like a snake, tapering off toward the end and terminating in a knob. Of course, it had a grip. When they hit someone hard, the skin tore open. (It did not hurt particularly, or it is possible that it did but that there was some sort of defiance within me or something else I have not spoken about before. I was able to take all that horror from beginning to end because the greater horror above everything else was that they had taken János away and the way they had done it. This completely occupied me, as did seeing the destruction of the village, and what was happening to women, children, and men; and I lived, of course, with the consciousness that this was going on throughout the entire country.)

256Another time—I no longer know what happened—they injured me and then carried me to the Russian doctor in their arms. He bandaged me, petted me, and took me to the military dining hall for dinner. There was, it seems, something to eat that day. They served me chicken soup; then they cut off the end of a loaf of bread, removed the soft part, and filled it with the livers of all of the hens. Eight or ten livers to take with me. It was, of course, an unheard-of treasure. I ran to Mami’s with it.

257This is what the Russians were like. They hit me with one hand, petted me with the other. Sometimes they came to grips over me: one wanted to spare me, the other to rape me, one to beat me, the other to heal me. One to take something from me, the other to give me something.

258They often showed up, beaming, bearing this or that as a gift for us. Then it turned out they had stolen it from one of the neighbors. We often took our things over to the neighbors for safekeeping; they stole them from there and unsuspectingly presented them to us as gifts. But then, we were not exactly angels, either; we laid our hands on their belongings, and they did not get angry about it. In general, a kind of joint ownership existed during the war. Maybe it is humorous for me to use that expression, but it hits the nail right on the head. Only slowly did we catch on. When we all were going hungry, they shared their last bite with us.

259By then we were eating rarely and little. Marianne’s grandmother and Klári also wound up in the cellar. The old woman gave a Napoleon gold piece for some soup. She had the soup brought in secretly, and they ate it without sharing it with anyone. There was not enough for everyone, anyway. The fact that we had taken them in to save them and they ate what we had with us—well, that did not count. This did not distress me particularly, I just thought it was strange.

260Marianne lent me a leather belt; my loose-fitting coat was warmer if I tied it at my waist. Then one time, two years later, they looked me up in Budapest and asked me to return the belt. I was greatly astonished by this. In addition, they asked for an Esterházy rug, claiming it belonged to them. Why was it theirs, or why was it ours? In the beginning, the two hunting dogs were still with us at the parsonage. I don’t know whether they were mates or from the same litter or cousins, but they were very fond of each other. They were big and strong; Filike, on the other hand, was tiny and fragile. I was on very friendly terms with the two dogs; they were with me most of the time, but I didn’t take them into the cellar with me. One morning, while János was still with me, the Russians shot down one of them. The eyes of the other dog showed it was suffering greatly. It was suffering indescribably. It clung to me, but when I jumped out of the window and Filike followed me, it remained in the house.

261Its name has been somewhere in the back of my mind for days, but even now I cannot say it; somehow I hear its sound, and the name just won’t come to me. This dog spotted me from the gate of the parsonage as I was walking on the other side, and, running happily, it crossed the road, bounding toward me, its eyes beaming. A truck approached. I yelled out its name so it would stop, but it did not. It was hit in the middle. It raised its back slightly, looked in my direction, then jerked once or twice, and stretched out. I took Filike into my arms and covered her eyes, so she could not see it. Snow was falling. When I went back that way again, it was pulled a little to the side, so military vehicles would not flatten it into a pancake, and snow had already half covered it.

262But I knew, felt it was better this way. What could I have done with such a big dog, an Esterházy hunting dog? I could not have taken it into the cellar with me. It was a miracle that the Russians had put up with Filike up to now; they generally shot dogs. The Germans liked dogs, the Russians liked children.

263The inhabitants of the cellar suddenly discovered that Filike was with me. Scandal, uproar: there is enough trouble because of me, the Russians are searching the cellar because of me, the Russians are fleecing them, get rid of the dog!

264I went to Mami’s place and asked them to take Filike in. They accepted her very reluctantly. Filike would not eat, though she was given some milk and meat. (Such fare was a miracle by then; I don’t know where they got hold of them.) But she did not eat a thing for two days. When I went over and she saw me, she ran to me and kept nipping my hands and ankles in her happiness. It hurt, but she kept nipping at me in her joy. Then she ate, but only if I stayed beside her, and meanwhile, she kept her eyes on me constantly.

265Two days later I went over again. I encountered Filike in the yard and called her to me. She turned her head to the side to avoid looking at me and moved on. I cried and begged, but she did not want to acknowledge me. If I stood in front of her, she went around me, looking away indifferently beside me.

266I parted company with Filike. She was safe, but I felt completely lonely. I never cried again during the war. After this, I was unable to cry for years. Those around me died one after the other, they came and went or were taken away. I gradually became indifferent toward them. But amid the dreariness of the days in the cellar, the filth, the lice, and the people quarreling and bemoaning the loss of their valuables, Filike was my last companion.

267I covered myself with a black scarf and smudged my face with ashes and mud—this was how the women tried to protect themselves. One time, I had to jump over a ditch. I was wearing white Halina-cloth boots with black toes and heels. They were beautiful Hungarian boots. János had brought home the Halina cloth from the Russian front, and a bootmaker for officers made them for me in Kolozsvár. While jumping I neglected, for an instant, the stooped bearing of an old woman. The commanding officer of the kommandatura saw me from a window. Then he found me. I have no idea how he was able to do so. Soldiers dragged me to him, or rather, they escorted me as if I were going to an official interrogation. The kommandatura was situated next to the cellar.

268He received me gently. I was served a good dinner. I waited for what was to follow. If I stay with him for the night, he said, he will give me half a pig. Good Lord! half a pig!

269I went to bed with him without hesitation. Here there was cleanliness and order. Even something like a window with glass panes. Maybe the only one in the whole village. Touching me in bed, he said that some kind of discharge was draining from me—‘voda’ (water). Maybe he even asked if I was sick. How would I know! After so many Russians who could know whether there was any syphilis or gonorrhea? “I don’t know,” I said. Somehow he relaxed. He was very gentle and pleasant; this affected me more painfully than being raped without any bargaining. Nevertheless, I tried to “behave”. I wanted to leave early in the morning. I asked him to let me go. I was walking in the corridor. The woman cook, who was also the cook at the hospital, was coming toward me; she was cooking here now. She looked at me, the hospital’s “little darling”. I had gone to bed, even though they did not beat me, did not strike me; it showed in her eyes what she was thinking, “You are a whore.”

270Actually, I was a whore in the strictest sense of the word. A whore is someone who goes to bed for money or some other kind of benefit. A whore is someone who deliberately acquires something with her body.

271Of course, this never entered my mind there. I did not think of anything. I did no thinking. Only some great bitterness abided within me. I felt it was unbearable, and not just this, but everything, the totality. What a gray morning! What is a gray morning? The nadir of human humiliation. I did not receive the half of a pig. I felt relieved.

272Mankind turns savage and incomprehensible in war.

273As early as autumn, János had shown me the lovely, large house his father had wanted to buy and in place of which he bought the smaller peasant house on the sidestreet. It was situated on a thoroughfare, on this side of the manor house; its stucco-decorated ceiling had taken a hit. A sofa had shot up to that ceiling and somehow remained stuck there. (I have often thought that if by chance they had purchased that house, maybe we would not be alive by now.) I once observed a Russian soldier, standing on a single board, fire zealously at the stucco, or what remained of it, breaking into pieces a house that had neither a front nor sides, just a back wall, all of the roof, and a ceiling with a sofa hanging from it. Much later, I learned from one of Miklós’s novellas why in war soldiers shatter what remains standing.

274As I have related elsewhere, the German soldiers did not overly respect the Esterházy manor house. They threw jars of jam against the frescoes, they kicked the beautiful antique furniture. I have already related how the Esterházys knocked out the bottoms of several hundred wine barrels and how people hauled away the wine in buckets, cursing the Esterházys. The Esterházys, however, warned everyone not to leave wine cellars full, and pour out all their wine. How did they know this had to be done? From history.

275Then we, too, had to learn the lesson. Drunken Russians, drunken Germans were much wilder than the sober ones. In general, we were afraid when we encountered drunken soldiers.

276Ah yes, the Hungarians feared for their wine. They all guarded their own cellars.

277The Russians respected the manor house even less than the Germans had. They couldn’t figure out how to heat the embossed and glazed earthenware stoves that stood on brass legs, or they didn’t want to learn how from direct experience, although you could heat very effectively with these stoves, and they held the heat until the next day. Instead, they broke the windows, if by some chance they were still unbroken; then they boarded them up, ran the pipe of a small iron stove through an opening, and provided heat that way for the chambers of the manor house, as in a shack. The parquet floors were ruined; there was smoke, it pinched their eyes; they scattered straw on the floor and lay down. They smashed the majolica stoves into bits.

278One of the hall-sized rooms at the manor house once served as a first aid station; I don’t remember whether it was for male or female soldiers. Once I was taken there to work. Of course, shelling was going on, incoming and outgoing, as always. They brought in the wounded on stretchers, in their arms, on their backs, in whatever way they could. They laid them down on the straw that covered the entire hall. Stench, blood, brandy, mud, drenched clothing, sweat, the smell of foul breath were everywhere. The wounded did not cry or moan a lot. One or two women with rubber gloves reaching to their elbows bustled about among them. Why were they wearing those gloves? To protect their hands? Or the wounded from bacteria? I don’t think so, because they were lying in the straw, in their fringed, torn clothing, in excrement, blood, filth, snot, mud. And the nurses were not in the habit of protecting their hands.

279The nurses ordered me to help them. They sent me to a soldier whose fingers hung down, badly mangled. I asked them what I should do, in what language I don’t know, maybe in Romanian. But I may have known enough Russian by then. Save as much as you can, bandage it, they said, and cut off all the rest. “With what?” I asked. “With scissors,” they replied. “Find some scissors and cut them off.” I was horrified; this did not conform with my hygienic training. (Ultimately, what would be lost in this case? If we did not cut them off, gangrene would set in. But to lop off the fingers of a still conscious being with filthy scissors without any anesthesia? I could not do it.) Defying the probability that they would beat me up or shoot me, I turned around and walked out.

280The intestines hanging out and so on and so on—I do not want to describe any of this. The female medical orderlies, like women preparing for a holiday in some kitchen, issued orders, shouted to each other, the male medical orderlies, and the wounded—their frame of mind was not at all solemn. It was as if they were enjoying the enormous commotion, and thought they could be the masters of the situation. I wasn’t capable of this. I think they held me in contempt for it.

281I saw a soldier whose foot was missing at the ankle, and sitting on a horse, he fought on with blood seeping through the bandage. (It is possible I saw this earlier.)

282A soldier’s left arm had caught a round of bullets. They produced a hatchet, sharpened it, and they kept giving him drinks, so that when he was unconscious from drunkenness, they could chop off his arm. In general, they got their wounded thoroughly soused; then they themselves had a go at it. This was the procedure also used in the Middle Ages.

  • 18 A type of Russian canon.

283The Stalin-organ?18 When the Stalin-organ went off, the ground shook under our feet, black smoke suffocated us, and we fled in fright into the house. But we just heard it. What could those it hit have felt? And the Stalin-candle. A candle descends slowly from the sky at night, it lights up the area with a bright light. The shelling can commence! When an air attack came, the Russian soldiers ran out of the houses, held their machine guns up, and fired at the planes, laughing all the while.

284I went back to the parsonage one more time because of the Yugoslav priest, who still lay there sick and abandoned.

285It was at the parsonage that Mami had cursed clergymen. When we were all still living there, the archdeacon, that hard, materialistic, avaricious man, stated that the house was the target of so much trouble because I, the “Protestant”, was living there. The blue eyes of gentle, sweet Mami flashed, “You are not worth as much as this woman’s little finger. If God is punishing this house, it is because of you clergymen. I am up to here with you. What counts is what you do and not what you say.” From that time on, Mamika never again had anything to do with the clergy.

286Others told me about this later. I listened dumbfounded. The archdeacon’s judgement, who was raised in the religious freedom of Transylvania, was so incomprehensible to me that I felt no anger. I would have laughed in his face, if it had not hurt Mami’s feelings so much.

  • 19 “Dear Madam, you are so kind. You must turn Catholic.”
  • 20 The years of hard-line communism hallmarked by the name of Mátyás Rákosi, First Secretary of the H (...)

287I made arrangements with the nuns to take care of the priest. They accepted the responsibility. We managed somehow to put him on a door; I asked some soldiers to help us to carry him. They did. The priest’s eyes filled with tears; he kissed my hand and said in German (I didn’t know German, nor did he), “Gnädige Frau, Sie sind so gut. Sie müssen katholisieren.”19 I understood this. I found it quite humorous, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I said, fine, I will give it some thought. I did not know then that ten years later, I would be giving it some thought— and I would do it during the Rákosi era.20 At the time, in the great bustle when everyone was rescuing their belongings, I abandoned the metal box in which I had hidden my jewelry and china. It remained under the bed on which the priest had lain. Just imagine, the Russians kicked it, and the china and the straw-like material in which it was packed fell out. They found it uninteresting and kicked it back under the bed. To my great amazement, while everyone lost their belongings, I found the box and took it home. Strange that I said, “took it home”. I took Nyunyuka and the box from the parsonage to Auntie Anna’s house. I shall relate how I got there.

288I heard from someone that an interpreter named Benô Jakab could possibly find out something at the command post about our men who had been taken away: about János. I was told where his house was located. I went there. It was a small peasant house. I was aware that Russians lived in the front part of houses everywhere; so I knocked on the little window of the summer kitchen, the size of a cubby-hole, in the rear. An old woman peered through it and came out. She was Auntie Anna.

289Auntie Anna is very difficult to describe. A peasant, her looks aging, a widow, black scarf, very humble, very deaf, slight, short. As I learned later, her husband had treated her very roughly, he thrashed her soundly. Anna went to do washing just because her life became easier for a couple of hours. She had a son, she loved him deeply. She had not heard a word about him for a long time; he was reported missing in action. Her daughter, Rózsika, was living with her, and it was her husband, Benő Jakab, who was the interpreter. He was from Upper Hungary and could speak to the Russians in “Ruthenian”. (They had fled to this area from the bombardment of Budapest.)

290By occupation Rózsika was, people said, a real whore. Then she married Benő, who made a lot of money as a sleeping-car guard. They built a nice house; Rózsika had a coat made of tiger fur and some jewelry. A long time later, they had a car accident, and Benő died at the scene. Rózsika was afraid of a storm, and Benő was driving too fast, so they would avoid it. She once looked me up in Budapest—I was Miklós’s wife by then—and this was how we learned about their fate.

291Rózsika had a “difficult” temperament, like her father; she treated Auntie Anna dreadfully. It was odd that she accepted me like a sister. She told me many times, “I love you like a sister.” She never treated me badly.

292Auntie Anna came out and contemplated my eyes for a long time. Benő is not at home, come in and sit down. I was afraid because I was full of lice and who knew what else. I sat cautiously, I did not take off my shawl. She urged, “Take off your shawl, it is hot.”

293It was a tiny summer kitchen, with a dirt floor, a stacked whitewashed stove, behind it a narrow bench-like bed with plaited bulrushes along the wall, to the side a bed, a small table, a wood table cobbled together under the window, and a chair. That was all the furniture. There was only a narrow space between the stove and the bed. In the very front, a door led from a lovely, cement-floored kitchen; opposite to it was a thin door made of boards, a tiny woodshed, a tool house.

294Rózsika related to me later that when I knocked on the door, Auntie Anna said, “Mary knocked on the door, the Virgin Mary.” She felt such purity and sadness emanating from the woman standing before the door that she had to be admitted. If she was not—she asserted to Rózsika— then she would be turning Mary away. I did not make anything of this; I came to know Auntie Anna as a perfectly clearheaded woman.

295The next morning, the Russians again mustered the women and men in the cellar to dig ditches. Just then, Benő came with the soldiers; I did not know him, but he recognized me from Auntie Anna’s account. There was a tobacco shop, completely demolished, at the assembly point; its door was missing, and inside were pieces of furniture thrown helter-skelter. “Hide under the table quickly,” Benő said, “I will come back for you.” I crouched there for an hour or two; I froze to the bone; it was wintry cold. Then he came for me and said, “I will take you home.” He took me home. To Auntie Anna, to the tiny, clean summer kitchen.

296Benő left. Auntie Anna heated some water and brought in a washtub. She and Rózsika seated me in it and gave me a bath. They washed my undergarments, my panties (they were encrusted with blood). While those were drying, Rózsika gave me another pair to wear. This was a very great thing for her to do under the circumstances.

297From that moment on, this was my home. They gave me something to eat. Auntie Anna slept on the floor, literally the dirt floor; doubtless, there was a draft between the two doors. Rózsika and Benő slept on the narrow straw mattress on the bed, and I on the bench-like bed.

298The days passed peacefully in the beginning. No one harmed me. I do not know whether it was then or later that Péter appeared on the scene.

299Péter was nineteen, a Soviet soldier. He took a fancy to me. The upshot was that he did not want to rape me. For a defense, I began by telling him I had a problem with my heart. “No,” he said, putting his hand on my dress, on my thigh, “I don’t want this.” Then putting his hand on my heart, “This is what I want!”

300He explained that in Russia there are streets with sidewalks, canals where the water drains, and there is never any mud. You can turn a small wheel, and pure, delicious water flows from the faucet. You can buy as many cabbages and potatoes as you wish. And you can buy bread every day.

  • 21 “Violet will be my wife” – author’s note.

301He related all this as if Russia were a fairyland, so I would be seized by the desire to go with him. He wanted me to become his wife. In the morning he would go out into the yard and sing full-throatedly, “Viorita moya zhenka budiet.”21 I caused a minor mishap on one occasion. I was seated, and Péter laid his head in my lap. Wanting to resist, I raised it, Péter turned his head to the side, and my finger poked him in the eye.

  • 22 “Violet did not mean to do it” – author’s note.

302The other soldiers rushed in because I wanted to poke out the eye of a Soviet soldier. Péter yelled, “Viorita ne hotyila!”22 Then Rózsika came, then Auntie Anna followed. Auntie Anna wept and pleaded. Benő came and said it was not intentional. Wrangling. Finally, they let me go because of Péter’s fury.

303German planes showered leaflets down from the sky. Russian soldiers dashed in, to show them to me, for me to read and tell them what they said. I told them I did not know any German. They were terribly insistent. I still remember that the large-lettered heading went something like this, “Soviet forces retreated 50 kilometers at Lovasberény.” I really did not know German, but “50 kilometers zürück,” and “sowietische truppen”—this was possible to understand. I reported it to them. They looked at me, folded up the leaflet and left, and in the evening of that day, they took me away under the suspicion of being a spy.

304I do not understand even today why I did not want to die right then, why I didn’t want them to execute me. But I felt it was insane. Should I die because of this? When they stood me before the summary court, I tried to explain with the help of an interpreter that there are Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin letters. The leaflet was in Latin letters and Arabic numerals, which were also commonly used, and so I was able to read them. We Hungarians also used the word “zürück”, we have taken it into our language. Lovasberény was a Hungarian place name. It was even simpler to understand they were Soviet troops. They listened to all this attentively to the end, and obviously tried to evaluate it. They asked several times what a Latin letter was. I still remember the words “bukva latina.” The interpreter did not know anything about it and kept shrugging his shoulders. I told him to ask anyone who had finished their schooling as to what it meant. They asked me three times whether we write with Latin letters and why we do. I explained that everyone in western civilization uses Latin letters. They greeted this with disbelief. (At the time Benő had been taken to another village to do some interpreting.) It was apparent that they thought the entire world used Cyrillic letters. Why were they unable to read our writing? They presumed it was all in German and based on some kind of secret agreement.

305Night came. I waited for them to come to a decision. They were searching for a village teacher. Whether they would execute me or not depended on the courage, cowardice, or education of this individual.

306They received the information that Latin letters actually exist. That “km” equals “km.” We use the “zürück” word. In a jiffy, without further ado, “You may go!” They released me. This was the way they did it. Carrying out an execution was no special ceremony either.

307Sergei. I no longer know what happened when the three soldiers broke in—they wanted to take me away again. Sergei did not actually harm me; I only remember that he stood there and shouted when Rózsika started off to the command post for help because the soldiers were again raping women. At this, his companions fled, only he stayed behind. The patrol arrived. They gave him a good hiding and hauled him away. He returned the next day with two or three of his companions and shouted that he had been slapped because of me. In Russia, he said, equality exists between men and women. He stood me in the middle of the room to give me back what he had received. I thought he would slap me in the face so hard that my head would fly off and my teeth shatter. I got ready for it. I clamped my eyes shut; I stood with my feet set apart a little so I would not fall down. I waited for Sergei to hit me in the face. A monstrous crack! He had clapped his hands together, and he kissed me. Of course, the house rang with laughter.

308Actually, this episode remains among my pleasant memories. This was the way they played pranks.

309But Sergei was really badly injured; he was pale and furious when he was given the hiding.

310Boxing each other’s ears or fighting broke out among them with incredible suddenness; a storm of words followed, then died down; it became quiet as if nothing had happened.

311The soldiers got hold of some flour and lard; it was possible to make some pancakes with them. We mixed flour and water and fried it in lard. No sugar, salt, there was nothing. But pleasure, yes. They stood in line, and Rózsika and I cooked and cooked pancakes constantly from morning until noon. We became worn out and very bored, and they kept clamoring; as customary with soldiers standing in line, they kept pushing, urging, demanding. Infuriated, Rózsika took the plate on which we put the pancakes, threw it to the ground, and shouted at them. She swore in Russian and adorned it with Hungarian.

312The outcome: they calmed Rózsika down, picked up the remains of the plate, brought us another one, and quietly, not uttering a word, they continued standing in line. The soldier at the head of the line would always hold the plate, we would turn the pan over on it; he would bolt down the hot pancake and pass the plate on to the next one in line.

313One night they drank a lot, caroused and shouted. But they left us alone. In the morning they told us to clean their room. Auntie Anna started off immediately. No, they objected. She was old, I should go. I went into the square room on the streetside for the first time. On the dirt-covered floor were cigarette butts, vomit, trampled scraps of food. Beside the wall were two gasoline cans, machine guns here and there (more like a gun with a short handle); and they sat, according to their custom, in their quilted, furred overcoats and watched me as I swept and then scrubbed the floor. They made fun of me and teased me because my white young woman’s hand had to do some work. It was not easy. The vomit stank, and they did not move out of the way. I crawled under the chairs and washed around their feet. They guffawed. One of them put his boot on my hand; I felt that he wasn’t really stepping on it, that he simply wanted to frighten me, but the damaged heel plate tore open the back of my hand. It was not a deep wound, but since I bleed easily, the blood flowed. Out of deviltry, I continued to wash the floor unconcernedly. A terrible storm erupted. Shouting. They swore at the soldier who had stepped on my hand, and, scurrying, they took me to the Russian doctor. He was also angry with them, and they showered me with gifts. (A spoon, a knife, two half loaves of bread, and a brightly colored summer dress.) Rózsika and I were greatly amused. This was the way we lived.

314There were times when we had only plain chamomile tea to drink without sugar, and, at noon, only watery grits boiled in salt water to eat. The Russians did not much care, either, whether they ate or not.

315New units arrived while Benő was away, and I was harassed a lot, which I was finding very hard to bear. I moved to the neighbor’s place; a family with five children was living there in a woodshed. They were being left alone because the man’s broken leg was in a cast, and, besides, the Russians felt a respect for a family with five children. The seven of them barely had room in the woodshed. In it was stacked a cord of wood, on which Uncle Mihály (whose leg was broken) spread some straw, and I slept on it, covered with a rug. It was a good high resting place. But no matter what we did, I could always feel the logs. This would not have been a problem, because it is not important in a war for you to lie comfortably. But when things were quiet, red bugs would crawl out of the stack of logs, and since my body was warm, they would run around on me, beside the lice. When bombardment started, the bugs would hide. I could not sleep either from the firing going on or from the bugs holding dances on me. They were as immune to the karosene we smeared on ourselves as the lice

316I eventually returned to the Jakabs.

317I don’t know what happened, what made me so dead-tired. Somehow or other, I was no longer afraid of the soldiers, but I shuddered at the thought of having to wake up to a round fired into the lock and then having them enter; I shuddered at the thought that they could break the door in on me at anytime. Plus these—the perpetual removal by force, the fatigue, the filth, the illness inside me, the fevers. I just did not know how much more I could take. (There was no place to escape, we were right in the middle of the front, the very worst place in Hungary. The war surged back and forth between Bicske and Lovasberény for three months.)

318Maybe the last straw came when a young woman eight months pregnant ran into a barn during a battle; a shell fragment struck her abdomen. First her intestines, then her baby spilled out, and the baby wriggled there on the ground. The mother shrieked and watched it before she died.

319This was intolerable. There is no God. It is not possible that God would allow this to happen.

320Auntie Anna, she was my sole source of comfort, purity, and goodness in life. (The firing line had separated me from Mamika.) Had the village changed hands or not? One could never be sure of anything.

321Then once, when I could no longer go on, I looked at the concrete ring of the well, to bash my head to pieces against it. Another time I searched for a big rock to hit my head with and spatter my skull. There was no train I could throw myself in front of. Only the manor house had upper storeys, and it was full of Russians. Maybe I should have searched for a rope.

322I want to recount a dream that haunts me in several variations since that time.

323I am fleeing, the Russians are running after me. My legs seem made of lead, I have difficulty running, but I have to keep accelerating because they will catch up with me. A leafy, large tree. I clamber up, I fall back. They are already in my tracks; I can see their faces, their glances. Somehow I climb back up the tree. I keep climbing, I do not fall back, but they are also up on the tree behind me. I crawl out on a branch ever higher, rather ever closer to its tip. I fall and hit the ground. I race along. I reach a wall. I climb up the wall. I climb up the wall between the slots of the bricks to reach its top. My nails tear as the Russians jerk me back. I am running again, into a house. I flee back and forth inside the house. I go across attics, cellars, through doors, windows. They catch up with me. I run into a lavatory, I lock the door behind me. I know they will break it in, but I have a second or two until then. I stand on top of the toilet, I reach into the tank, I know it contains a weight. I want to take it out and hit my head with it and shatter my skull. But by then they break the door in. The weight is in my hand. A Russian comes toward me, I want to hit him in the head. At that moment I wake up, sweating; I feel my heart throbbing in the corners of my eyes, I am suffocating, gasping for breath.

324I had this dream for many, many years. It is beginning to fade now. But I am still wandering about in houses and fleeing, and the Russians are still opening doors on me and crawling through windows. I am now realizing, as I write this, that I shall always be apprehensive when a door stands ajar—who will come through it and pounce on me and take me away or deck me, hit me? But I do not like tightly locked doors, either. What an illusion they are (I learned from the Russians, how to open any door with a crowbar), I cannot escape quickly enough if the door is locked.

325I poured some gasoline into a glass, and I said to Auntie Anna that if the Russians broke in on us again, I would throw the glass into the stove. A small fire burned in the stove day and night, so we would not freeze.

326“Auntie Anna,” I said, “when they break in the door, stand behind it. While it is exploding, the door will ward off the flames, and then you will jump out and run into the yard and quickly lie down in the snow. Be careful, cover your face.”

327Auntie Anna, who was so good and religious, a believer, looked at me and said calmly, “I will not stand behind the door.”

328I wonder whether the Russians sensed something in me. I don’t know; they left me alone. Or maybe tranquility prevailed for a couple of days by accident. For otherwise, there was no tranquility. Incoming, outgoing firing, casualties, mud, trenches, lice, hunger.

329Then the Russians evacuated the village, as I learned later. But we had no sign of it at the time. Had we, maybe I wouldn’t have left with the Jakabs, because I did have to give thought to Mami. Usually, the Russians evacuated a village by entering houses with the order for all to leave in ten minutes. Then everyone tied everything they could into a bundle; those who had a wheelbarrow or something loaded their things on it, took hold of the children, and, being spurred on, moved quickly. Mami and the old women could not go on foot and remained in the house. Had I been there, maybe I would have tried to carry her away in a wheelbarrow.

330Benő, Rózsika and I headed for Budapest, because I knew my mother and the family had fled to my great uncle Gábor’s home on Wekerle Street.

331We started out with a borrowed horse—it could barely walk—a wagon, and a little slip of Russian paper with Cyrillic letters on it, which Benő could read. It was very hard for me to say good-bye to Auntie Anna. In keeping with her wish, she remained in the house with the Russians. They never harmed her; they liked her because she was old, and they felt her gentleness and kindness.

332She has died since then. If there is some kind of heaven, then Auntie Anna is there. (My friend Judit told me she didn’t believe in God. Then all is fine with you, I said, because for you there is nothing after death. There is no accountability, no purgatory, no further suffering. There is nothing more than nothingness. “There is nothing,” she said. Only scepticism and the possibility that maybe there is a God?)

333We kept moving on and on. We pushed and pulled the wagon, the horse. Firing went on here and there; then came the abandoned ruins, the dead, but really not very many of the latter. We arrived in Budapest. It was in ruins, but we were surprised that, generally speaking, so many buildings were still standing; we thought everything had been pulverized.

334We were stopped several times, but Benő produced the slip of paper, and we were allowed to continue. We reached the place where the Margit Bridge had once been. Many fabulous stories were circulating about the destruction of this bridge; my sister Irene’s account belongs among them. She was only wanted to cross the bridge by streetcar. There was a long delay, she got off to pee. She did not make it back to the streetcar before it started up. So from the river bank she saw the bridge blow up, half of the middle streetcar remained hanging in the air, its other half plunged into the Danube. It was a bright morning.

335When we reached the spot, the Russians were just in the process of constructing an emergency bridge. I found the scene interesting. Two steep semicircles, one from Pest to Margit Island, right to its tip, the other from Margit Island to Buda. Everything was made of wood and piled up, the way buckets and boards were in Transylvania; they joined them together arched very steeply. The Russians were painting the bridge at the time. They did not want to let us across with the wagon, “Stop and paint the bridge!” I seem to remember, they were painting it red, but I won’t swear to it. I grabbed a brush and painted.

336March had arrived, but it was still cold. We had walked all day and had not had anything to eat. I wanted to reach my mother and family by nightfall. No one was permitted to be out on the street at night. (The curfew was in force.) I knew Russian fairly well by then; I said I was sick. I put the brush down and started to walk away. The Russians shouted that they would beat me up. But I talked back to them in Russian and just kept on going. They were dumbfounded and let me go on.

337In the meantime, the Jakabs had somehow ridden away in the wagon. I had given them our address. If my mother and family are alive... But what if they are not? I don’t know what I would have done. The oil for wounds and the small piece of sausage were in my pocket. Well, I started for Wekerle Street. I looked at the buildings, at those blown to bits, at those that survived. By this time there no longer were dead horses and corpses on the streets. After Csákvár, Budapest seemed peaceful and orderly.

338I found 16 Sándor Wekerle Street. The back part of the building had burned down. Everything was black, sooty, cindery; I could see right through all the apartments. I stood and took it all in.

339The building right next to Uncle Gábor’s had fallen down, collapsed. Auntie Grünberg, whom I liked very much, lived there. (She had a tworoom apartment with a kitchen. The two rooms had crashed down, but the tiny kitchen remained. She withdrew into it for sixteen years, hoping she would receive an apartment from the state. She fell ill, and the state paid her sixteen thousand forints in compensation, and she moved to the provinces on that.)

340I went up the stairs slowly. The door had a bell, the old bell. It seemed incredible to me. I rang. I no longer remember the way we met or what we said. There were many strangers in the apartment. My family had taken in the residents of the burned-out section.

341There were no panes in the windows; their frames were pasted over with paper, instead. But I remember I was astonished and surprised to see the table spread with a white tablecloth. We had dinner, a real dinner.

342We sat down and ate. I was full of lice and filthy; I had only washed my hands; nothing else entered my mind in the commotion present in the apartment.

343Naturally, my mother wept and was happy and hugged me. I looked at her and was happy for her. I was happy they all were alive, though not very much so.

344I myself wasn’t very happy about anything and didn’t much believe in anything. I was already carrying the sickness that would prevent me from ever giving birth to children, and I didn’t know whether I had syphilis or not. I suspected that I could infect someone badly, and I did not want to infect anyone.

345We were seated at the table; I did not even take out the little piece of sausage I had kept hidden to this point. It seemed ridiculous on this occasion. We were having tongue in tomato sauce. I looked at it, marveling; I ate it silently.

346They told me the Russians had raped women. “Where you were, too?” asked my mother “Yes,” I replied, “where I was, too.” “But they didn’t take you away, did they?” she asked. “Yes, everyone,” I replied, and I kept on eating. My mother gave me a little look and said in amazement, “But why did you let them?” “Because they hit me,” I replied, and I kept on eating. I did not consider the entire matter to be either important or interesting.

347Someone asked airily and drolly, “Many times?” “I lost count,” I said, and I kept on eating. “Just think, we had lice in the cellar,” my mother said. “We did, too,” I said. “But surely you didn’t get infested.” “I did indeed!” “With head lice?” my mother asked. “Every kind,” I said, and I kept on eating. Then we talked about other things.

348My mother called me aside after dinner and said, “My dear girl, don’t tell such nasty stories, people might believe them!”

349I looked at her. “Mother, it is the truth.” She began crying and put her arms around me. Then I said, “Mother, I said they took everyone away, they raped every woman! You said they took away women here, too.”

350“Yes, but only those who were whores. You are not one,” my mother said. Then she threw herself on me and begged, “My dear, tell me it is not true!” “All right,” I said, “it is not true. They took me away just to nurse the sick.”

351We also met with my elder brother, Egon. I no longer remember those whirling days, either.

352I recall more clearly my visiting the place where Egon was living with Márta and their showing me—we laughed about this, they were such precious moments—that they lived on the fourth floor and the third floor was missing below them. (Márta, Egon’s lover, who had already popped up in our lives in Kolozsvár, was a physician and the same age as my mother. So my brother was in love with a woman the same age as my mother.)

353They also told me that when the bomb hit the building, they were all in the apartment, and water was standing in many bottles and buckets because they could get water only now and then. Everyone hit the floor; all the bottles broke and water ran in streams. Márta’s mother was wounded under the eye. Márta rushed over to take care of it and bandage it. Her other daughter and her grandchildren were not injured.

354Egon went out, looked down at the gallery leading to the apartments, and saw that there was no apartment below them. He tiptoed back and said, “Don’t anyone move! They shot out the apartment below us, we will stay here in the air!”

355This was their good fortune. Namely, the columns of reinforced concrete held up the storey. The Russians did not dare go up, they left them alone. Egon had already had to flee previously because he was a military deserter.

356Before they were to blow the building up, the Russians walled him and Márta up in the lavatory. They lived there for days or weeks. Water and food were lowered to them on a rope by way of the airshaft.

357I told Márta what had happened to me and that I should go to a doctor because I felt I had an infection, most likely syphilis. She took me to a doctor acquaintance of hers. I had to wait a couple of days for the test results.

358I remember that when I returned for the report, the doctor received me very gently and considerately. He asked me to take a seat. I knew from this that I was in for some bad news. This was the way they used to inform you.

359Then he said, “Madam, unfortunately, the finding is positive.” “Syphilis?” I asked, looking at him. “No, gonorrhea.” Relieved and laughing, I stood up, “Just gonorrhea?” The doctor looked at me, astounded. He didn’t know I was already intimately familiar with gonorrhea, nor was he aware of what I had gone through.

360He asked me in astonishment, “This is ‘just’ to you?” He was right— ”just” was an exceedingly hasty word, because it was not possible to get any medicine for it. According to my estimate, one-fourth of the country had gonorrhea, counting the troops stationed in it. There was absolutely no way of getting hold of medicines; quite simply, they did not exist. (Antibiotics were discovered only later, after the war; they reached Hungary much later.)

361On the other hand, it is not advisable, as it turned out, to walk around with gonorrhea for a long time, as that also became evident. Of course, I had my suspicions.

362How difficult it was to get hold of anything in those days and how people cheated! Egon, I remember, bought some Russian tea. The clerk weighed out the tea. He paid the bill. When they used it, they found a hooked nail in the bottom of the box.

363But people did behave honorably, too. For instance, Uncle Gábor and his family took in other residents whose apartments had burned down and shared everything with them. At the time, no decent person ate—though hunger existed—without sharing food with others who were hungry.

364Irénke had gone farther west on a German ambulance train. She was afraid of the Russians. Since she had a fear of the sick—she fainted at the sight of blood—she specified that she would do only office work. Then, because of typhus, she wound up in quarantine, where the nurses were also dying. She was often alone with the dying; she had to do everything for them. A young officer was unable to see because of a wound; he was blind. She was pushing him to a treatment in a wheelbarrow. Tihamér, while blind, fell in love with her. When he recovered, he was able to see again; he proposed to her; then, after they returned, he married her in Hungary. She became a splendid, courageous woman.

365I learned this from her, “Your hand and foot will not hurt when amputated radically.” (She nursed soldiers who were left only with their torsos; they kept them in clothes baskets.) I did not know all this about her at the time, only that she had left with the hospital. Pista Kovács also went to the west, or was he taken into the army?

366No news about János and the others. How could it have possibly reached us? It seemed as if the entire country lay in ruins and some sort of migration had begun. Everyone was going somewhere with wheelbarrows, backpacks, half-wrecked bicycles, sleds, tottering wagons which people pulled with their hands or by harnessing themselves to them—they crawled along here and there. From Buda to Pest, from Pest to Buda. Probably the reason was that each one was seeking refuge, safety somewhere else because they were Jews, deserters, partisans, escapees, or because they simply feared bombardments and families were nestling closer together. Houses were collapsing and being gutted by fire—they had to move on, and now everyone was searching for a place.

367The migration was hampered by the fact that the bridges had been blown up and had crashed into the Danube. Only one bridge remained half-passable. Somehow the Ferenc József Bridge had been patched up; there the lines of people, like ants, swarmed together, piling up terribly and tensely. (The Russians kept the small wooden bridge at Margit Island under guard, apparently for the delivery of supplies and for the guarantee of other things.) Of course, the capital also had more intact districts and quieter places. I saw these migrations at crossing-places. I myself had started from Sándor Wekerle Street for Castle Hill in order to locate the papal nuncio, Cardinal Rotta, and ask for his help in case he knew something about what happened to our men.

368I made it across the bridge with great difficulty. A dead man lay at the Buda abutment, half onto the sidewalk—maybe people had pulled him away from the road. I had never seen anything like this before, a horrible vision with its own grotesqueness; his face completely flattened, he lay with open eyes, his expression fixed, his knees pulled a little toward his stomach. What accident had overtaken him? Who had left him there? Or was he completely alone, and who would remove and bury him? Police, stretcher bearers, and soldiers didn’t exist and still weren’t around. Then the Russians began to organize this service, too. Or had the city begun to recover itself so quickly?

  • 23 The Hungarian Jacobins were the organizers of the first republican movement in Hungary. Their lead (...)

369I reached Castle Hill. The palace and the sections connected with it were in ruins, and, of course, many other buildings as well. The more deeply lying basin of the Vérmező was filled up with rubble from the ruins. The place where a park now blossoms was then a flat, deep basin overgrown with grass, the Blood Meadow; that was where the government executed the Jacobins;23 we used to cross it on little paths. According to architect Pál Granasztói, the picture of the city was more interesting and individualistic then; now mothers stroll with their children and the elderly sun themselves there; sometimes young people sit halfnaked on the grass. It was here, in 1959, that a man assaulted me among the flowering bushes in the softly sprinkling rain on a night in May.

370I cut across on the path and climbed up among the ruins somehow. The nunciature was mostly undamaged. Someone in the building informed me that the nuncio was with the Mary Ward nuns on Veres Pálné Street.

371I found him there. He knew nothing about the nunciature’s representatives who had been taken away, but he complained bitterly and at length that he had to leave the country within three days; he was being sent back to Rome and altogether only two passenger cars were placed at his disposal; so he did not know whether he could take enough communion wine for the journey, and the cars were bumpy and tiring.

372When I recounted to him what had happened, he told me, “We are all in God’s hands, trust him, my daughter; I shall pray for them,” and with that, he extended his hand for me to kiss his ring. Dismayed, I looked at him, and I began to feel nauseated. What does this man know about others? What does he know about the war? I already knew this much about Catholicism, that the amount of communion wine needed for a week fits into one bottle. (If he doesn’t take too many swigs.)

373I took the hand extended for the kiss and shook it, “I will pray, Father, that the car will not jolt you too much and that you will have enough wine for your journey.”

374Today I laugh at myself, but at the time I was still a Protestant and young; I was pleading for János, and I had run into a rock of piety.

375I headed toward home, toward my mother’s apartment. I looked at the ruined buildings, the sky, the streets. I was searching for my place in it all. Whither? Where?

376I was lying in a fever in Uncle Gábor’s place, where László Cselkó and his wife had come for a visit. She had been János’s sweetheart, his first love, when she was a girl. Later, I became very good friends with them, but then I was seeing them for the first time. They had received a letter from János; he had given them my great uncle’s address, and they had come to turn the letter over to us. A few words were concerned with me, “My mother and my wife disappeared in the commotion of the war at Csákvár. I am not very likely to see them again.” He wrote that he was a diplomatic prisoner of war. “I am well, I am treated well,” and so on and so on. He did not write much about himself; I no longer remember the details. Only who he was with. At the time I skipped over this, they were foreign names. Later on, these names would become important. And, “Please inform my wife’s mother or her relatives that they will not see their girl again during their life.” That was all.

377The letter began with lengthy chatter addressed to the woman, and what he wrote to her concluded very nicely and warmly. When I read the letter, a great weakness engulfed me; I thought I was going to faint. On the one hand, I rejoiced immensely at the fact that he was alive and well; but on the other, that cold sentence, “Please inform my wife’s mother or her relatives that they will not see their girl again during their life” stabbed me to the quick. Was that all I meant to him?

378We met with the couple one more time before we were to return to Kolozsvár. The woman told me I should not count on János. She saw him, met him during our honeymoon. When he told me that he was going to visit a friend in the hospital, he went to her and took her some flowers. She also told me that during those days, she also saw him at a nightclub. He was sitting with a professional whore. It was probably then that he caught the gonorrhea.

379Why did she tell me this? Because now that she had come to know me at age nineteen, and only recently coming out of the war, and having heard that I would like to go after János, that I wanted to find him, she felt sorry for me?

380I loved János profoundly; I felt relieved, I rejoiced that he was alive. But what I had learned just now was so bitter that it made life unbearably difficult for me. Difficult? Farcical. No word can convey what it meant to me.

381I thought the war was over. I thought easier times lay ahead. I was mistaken.

382(Horsemen are passing by the front of our apartment; I see them in the mirror; looking up from the sheet of paper, I see them as they ride by on the street. They are foreigners, I gather; the tip of the island is an ideal area for riding horses.

383How numerous were the horses in the war, these comrades-in-arms, and how very many of the dead horses we ate!)


1 “I have just now read its recipe: ‘Beat the lightly salted eggs. Mixing it with cream, pour it on the potatoes, then sprinkle grated cheese on top.’” – author’s note.

2 The forestry lodges kept in touch; everyone came and went on the various footpaths” – author’s note.

3 See note 18.

4 Béla Kádár (1877–1956) and János Thorma (1870–1937) were two outstanding painters of the first part of the 20th century.

5 “Kálmán Tompa bequeathed his beautiful collection to the museum of the city of Pécs. It can be viewed there today” – author’s note.

6 “Naturally, linen was not available during the war, nor after. We pieced out, patched the bed sheets, and sewed two together to make one” – author’s note.

7 “I don’t speak German, and I’m not going.”

8 “Spin the silk, comrade” – from a rallying song from the fifties emphasizing the necessity of working hard to “build socialism.”

9 “Russian soldier good, German soldier bad.”

10 “I was surprised that Russian officers also sat separately from the rank and file” – author’s note.

11 “It’s not working.”

12 “The practice was to remove civilians from the firing line” – author’s note.

13 “Maybe this is what was written on the piece of paper” – author’s note.

14 “Thank God it’s quiet today.”

15 “You don’t mind the work?”

16 “Up yours.”

17 In Hungarian kapu means gate.

18 A type of Russian canon.

19 “Dear Madam, you are so kind. You must turn Catholic.”

20 The years of hard-line communism hallmarked by the name of Mátyás Rákosi, First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party until 1956.

21 “Violet will be my wife” – author’s note.

22 “Violet did not mean to do it” – author’s note.

23 The Hungarian Jacobins were the organizers of the first republican movement in Hungary. Their leader, Ignác Martinovics, with six other Jacobins, were executed in 1795.

© Central European University Press, 2002

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